In the normal world of American diplomacy, a trip by a newly minted Secretary of State to the Middle East might have included Israel, particularly in the run-up to the President’s own visit next month.
But this isn’t the normal world of US diplomacy and these aren’t ordinary times. Kerry’s first trip as Secretary of State is ostensibly much broader than the Middle East but also very much tied to it. Indeed, as Middle East trips go, it seems to include just about every other Middle Eastern stop except Israel. Once he’s in the neighborhood, he can always make a stop in Jerusalem. But that wouldn’t be wise. And he should avoid his earlier inclination to visit before the President. And here’s why.
No Israeli Government
The notion that John Kerry would travel to Israel without a new Israeli Government in place never made much sense. The coalition guidelines -- as meaningless as they may prove to be -- still count for something. And it’s likely that the negotiations will drag on for some time yet. Kerry has no official counterpart yet; and it’s not even clear who will be in the opposition. At best Kerry’s trip would be a distraction during a very sensitive time; and at worst be perceived to be interference at a moment when the focus in Israel is internal horse trading not diplomacy. Kerry’s visit would only confuse matters further or be deemed not relevant. That’s not good for him or America.
Don’t jam the Israelis
President Obama has already reshaped the political environment in Israel by announcing his earlier than expected Israel visit. Whether or not he intended it to be this way or not, the so-called peace issue rides a little higher on the agenda today. Sending Kerry is both redundant and unwise. It’s likely the President – busy with a few other things – hasn’t yet settled on this own approach to the Israelis on either Iran or the Palestinian issue. Why force the issue by putting his chief diplomat in the middle of the mix when he’s not ready and risk no message or a garbled one. In this Administration, when it comes to foreign policy, all power flows from the top anyway.
The world’s bigger than Israel and the Palestinians
Kerry’s first trip, though focused on the Middle East, to be sure needs to be broader and more statesman-like than signaling his interest in the interminable shepherd’s war between Israelis and Palestinians . Kerry needs to start macro and then go micro. Meet the allies; consult; do secretary of state like things. Get the big strategic picture with regard to the Euros and the Russians and focus on Iran and Syria too. After all the two most kinetic issues in the region are an imploding Syria and the mullahs’ spinning centrifuges. Ignore the Israelis and Palestinians for now; it will be good for them.
Withholder in Chief
As I’ve argued before, Barack Obama is the most withholding foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates; he doesn’t delegate. What matters now concerning Israel is that the President sit down with the putative Prime Minister Netanyahu for a private conversation on Iran, the Palestinian issue and to test their capacity to reach understandings with one another. Kerry’s relationship with Bibi isn’t broken; Obama’s is. So too, the President needs to have a public conversation with the Israeli people and to personalize his often remote, detached persona. John Kerry can’t do either of these things; nor should he be expected to. By going to Israel before the President, Kerry risks exposing himself as not a serious player and taking away the President’s own fire. All eyes should be on Obama. Not only is that the way Obama wants it; that’s also the best approach to take.