On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.
On September 24, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Obama said the following:
Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long; it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace.
Leaving aside Obama’s willingness to blame Israel for not working for peace when, in fact, all they are reacting to is the consistent refusal of their supposed Palestinian peace partners to accept repeated offers of independence and peace, this statement represented genuine progress in the president’s thinking. Obama had in the past repeatedly embraced the notion that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict would solve all the problems in the region but the rise of ISIS had sobered him up a bit. The willingness of many Arab regimes to make common cause with Israel against both ISIS and radical Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood illustrated the obvious fact that conflict within the Arab world is a function of the division among Muslims, not discontent about Israel’s existence or the failure of peace negotiations.
This was a remarkable departure for a president who had spoken of Western and Israeli guilt for Muslim grievances in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, seemingly having finally woken up to the fact that no amount of apologizing or engagement will make radical Islam go away. But for some reason Kerry is still sticking to the old playbook in which Israelis can be scapegoated for the existence of bloody conflicts in which Jews play no part.
Kerry was, no doubt, playing to his audience of Muslims when he told a State Department ceremony honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that resentment about the Arab-Israeli conflict was fueling recruitment for ISIS. Since Kerry has consistently and wrongly blamed Israel for the collapse of his peace initiative, it didn’t take much imagination to see that what he was doing was blaming the Jewish state for the fact that ISIS terrorists have overrun much of Syria and Iraq while beheading Westerners. But while the Arab leaders he cited may pay lip service to anti-Israel sentiment by referencing the alleged “humiliation and denial and lack of human dignity” suffered by the Palestinians, ISIS’s popularity is based on promoting hatred of all Westerners and non-Muslims, not just Israelis. Which is to say that Bennett wasn’t off target or taking things out of context when he said, “When a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew.”
Yet while Obama called on Muslims to unite against ISIS and to recognize their responsibility to combat radical Islamists, Kerry is still using the same tired clichés about Israel and the Palestinians that even many Arabs are shelving and then looking to pick a fight with Israelis over their umbrage about his lack of perspective.
Israel’s government is probably better off not making much of an issue about Kerry’s latest vile assertion, but there should be no illusions about the attitudes his comments illustrated. If even after the outbreak of a war in Syria in which Muslims have slaughtered Muslims without a mention of Israelis Kerry is capable of sticking to the notion that the grievances of Palestinians who have repeatedly refused to make peace is the reason for ISIS, then his intellectual bankruptcy could not be more obvious.
The point here isn’t that Kerry is foolishly picking quarrels with Israel but that he has demonstrated his unfitness for office at a time when the United States is once again engaging in a conflict with a dangerous Islamist foe. President Obama has allowed Kerry to embark on a futile effort to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process thinking that there would be few consequences for another failure. But Kerry’s incapacity to focus on the ISIS threat presents a bigger problem for the president. If he is truly serious about building a coalition against ISIS, the president needs to stop letting his administration pick pointless fights with Israel. Kerry needs to be fired.