What John Kerry's Botched Gaza Plan Says About His Political Evolution

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Feeling the heat? Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

John Kerry is back from his mission to Gaza. He has no good news to report. The massacres continue. Tuesday night, 20 more Palestinians were killed when Israeli shells hit yet another U.N. shelter in a Gaza school — in response, Israeli spokesmen said, to fire from militants nearby. Kerry had spent much of the last week dashing frantically around the region (Cairo, Paris) trying to build support for a cease-fire that neither side much wants. Israel seems quite comfortable with losing the political argument so long as it wins the military fight, and Hamas seems happy to lose the military fight so long as it wins the public-relations battle. Kerry could not break this standoff. "At least you know you've made that effort to try to save lives," the secretary of state said at a Washington press conference. "That's our job." As Dana Milbank pointed out, this was a pretty meek plea, especially from a man who had spent the last year aiming so squarely at history: At least we tried.

Nevertheless, it has been riveting to watch Kerry this month, because his impossible and sometimes blundering mission has seemed to mask a profound personal change.  Many Zionist liberals have found their commitment to Israel wavering this summer, but none of them so consequentially as Kerry. When Obama first appointed the Massachusetts man secretary of state, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly conveyed to his a sense that Kerry, whom the prime minister knew well, had an "emotional commitment" to the state of Israel. From everything that has followed, that assessment seems right. What has been arresting this summer has been to see that emotional commitment turning.

"It's a hell of a pinpoint operation," Kerry said, angrily, while waiting to go on Fox News and hearing news of widespread destruction in Gaza, not realizing he was miked. In Washington he mentioned his "100 percent voting record pro-Israel" before talking about some of his concerns about Netanyahu's commitment to peace: "Either I take his commitment at face value or someone is playing a different game here, and I hope that’s not the fact." But Kerry's rhetoric was much less important than the brief proposal he advanced, late last week, for a Gaza cease-fire. The proposal effectively recognized Hamas as the legitimate political representative for Gaza; it promised billions in economic aid to the strip without demand that Hamas disarm in return; it did little to guarantee Israeli security; it cut out not only the Palestinian Authority, but Egypt as well. "It was everything Hamas could have hoped for," wrote Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. But even so, the proposal did not seem to tempt Hamas, and the Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected it. Ravid published his analysis under the headline, "Kerry's cease-fire proposal: What was he thinking?"

Well, what was he thinking? One of Ravid's Palestinian sources suggested that this was part of a grand strategic realignment from Washington, that the White House was embracing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its client, Hamas. But if this was a strategic shift, it was a very sloppily executed one. Throughout this crisis, the official line from the State Department has been consistently pro-Israel. From the podium, Kerry's spokeswoman Jen Psaki has gotten though whole press conferences without even mentioning the word Palestinian. When four Palestinian children who were killed by Israeli shells while playing soccer on the beach, Psaki declined to criticize Israel and then blamed Hamas: "They're putting their own people at risk." After an Israeli strike hit a hospital, the Department's spokeswoman reminded reporters that Hamas had in the past hidden rockets and militants in hospitals, though she soon confessed that she had no idea whether there had been rockets or militants hidden in this particular hospital. Probably some of this callousness has to do with the ridiculous American tendency to make political operatives the face of foreign policy, as if experience talking to the Muslim world is less important than experience talking to swing voters in Iowa's fourth. (Psaki's deputy, a young former CIA analyst named Marie Harf, is much more deft.) But it also makes it hard to believe that Kerry's overtures represented a coordinated shift in the American approach to the Middle East. 

The simpler explanation seems the more likely one. Perhaps the proposal was not the product of some grand strategic design, but just a sign that, in this crisis, Kerry's views about Israel and Palestine and what each owed the other were, as they say, evolving. 

Kerry can be an exasperating figure precisely because he is so easy to understand. He is an idealist without enough ideas. His shortcomings (self-importance, tone-deafness, a profoundly cloistered air) are such obviously patrician characteristics that they seem impossible to separate from his more important, equally patrician virtues: dedication to duty; decency; the conviction that, in basically all matters, progress is not just possible but imminent. And yet in the current conflict, he has exhibited an alarmingly casualness. According to The New Republic's absorbing account, his long, failed efforts to broker a new peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority last year hinged in part upon a private conversation with Netanyahu from which Kerry and the Israeli prime minister emerged with radically different ideas about what they had agreed to. “Both [Kerry and Netanyahu] like to talk for long periods of time,” a diplomatic insider told TNR. “And I’m not sure that when one of them is lecturing the other at length, the other guy is really listening very carefully.”

That does sound like Kerry. At his press conference yesterday, during which he tried to explain why he had not been able to halt a military campaign in which hundreds of civilians are dying, Kerry dressed hideously in a tan suit with a salmon tie. I mean, I get it: It's Washington in July, you don't want to look like some clueless Hill staffer in dark wool. But there are better ensembles to choose! In Cairo a few days earlier, the secretary had appeared before reporters to try to tamp down the furor over his cease-fire proposal, in which he suggested (implausibly, given that it had been written down and then presented to the Israeli cabinet) that the document had been informal. Then he described the leak as "mischievous." Given the stakes, what a weird word to use.

If Kerry's adventures in Israel had gone better, you could have imagined a version of his memoir in which a peace deal was his crowning accomplishment, in which it stitched his whole biography together. The horrors he saw in Vietnam and the heroism of his opposition to that war would establish his determination to end this one. His work as a lawyer and his skill at negotiation would come into play. His long friendship with Netanyahu, formed when the Israeli was a young management consultant in Boston, would allow him to reach the man. His time spent in the anti-war movement and among civil rights leaders would allow him to understand the politics of repression, and to sift out the nihilistic elements of Palestinian politics and public opinion from the heroic ones. There would be an emotional chapter on his late-in-life discovery that he is part-Jewish. The whole thing would fit.

Probably this was always too much to hope for. It isn't Kerry's fault that, in this conflict, no one has any great ideas. Kerry's best proposal for peace on the West Bank involved an elaborate system of cameras and early warning systems for rocket attacks that would allow Israel to secure the Jordan Valley from a distance, by using impersonal American technology without having to put its own soldiers in the position of shooting at Palestinian attackers. Points for creativity, I guess, but still it sounded slightly insane.

But it's hard to shake the thought that the late date at which this reconsideration took place has something to do with the secretary himself, that Kerry could hold to very deep but contradictory commitments in his head at once, placidly, without reconciling them. Perhaps a less placid and self-sure figure might have worked to reconcile them much earlier. That "100 percent pro-Israel" perspective might have meant something a little bit different. His spokespeople might not have been so cold to Palestinian suffering at a time when many Americans (particularly young Americans) were horrified by it. The cease-fire proposal, with its overture to Hamas, might have been more cautiously and carefully structured and been less surprising. It might have been harder to dismiss.  

There are many people in the world who believe that the U.S.'s relationship with Israel shows the true American face, and that it reveals that all of our idealistic talk is just cover, that what really matters is only who our friends are. Not only does that theory misunderstand Israel, but it is far too cynical. In the Obama era, it is also out of date. Kerry isn't cynical. He is something far more complicated and far more characteristically American. He is earnest. The American mark in Kerry isn't only in the long, steady devotion to his friends. Much more, it is in the late, lurching, heartfelt overcorrection.