Along Came Kerry

How has John Kerry mishandled U.S. Middle East policy? Let us count the ways.

On January 16, after two days of voting, the Egyptian people freely, democratically approved a new constitution that (emphasis mine):

forbids "religion, race, gender or geography" from being the basis to form a political party while guaranteeing freedom of religion and granting, for the first time, Copts the right to build churches without permission of the president. Women are recognized as equals in Egyptian society.

Furthermore, unlike the now defunct constitution, which was "written by the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamists," the new constitution was (emphasis mine) "written by a committee of 50 including women, Christians, one Salafist and one independent Islamist."

Who could possibly have a problem with that?

John Kerry, that's who (emphases mine):

The draft Egyptian constitution passed a public referendum this week, but... the United States urges the interim Egyptian government to fully implement those rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the new constitution for the benefit of the Egyptian people, and to take steps towards reconciliation.

[...]

Democracy is more than any one referendum or election. It is about equal rights and protections under the law for all Egyptians, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

Now either there's an alternative meaning of "equal rights and protections under the law for all Egyptians, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity, or political affiliation," or the new constitution does that.

So again, what is Kerry's problem? Apparently, our secretary of state is miffed that the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the writing the new constitution. As if a new constitution written with the participation of the same Muslim Brotherhood that wrote the old one would guarantee any of the "rights and freedoms" Kerry calls for.

But surely it is more than just that. Judging by his past statements, President Obama clearly, and John Kerry probably, are less concerned about the constitution writing process than by the way the thing came to be written in the first place: after duly elected president (and Muslim Brotherhood member) Morsi was deposed in what undeniably was a military coup.

And which, ordinarily, would be a bad thing. But what Kerry fails to appreciate is that unlike in your typical Latin American banana republic, and notwithstanding military dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy, the military in an Arab state, far from being a threat to democracy, can be its greatest guarantor by enforcing secularism. That was the role the Turkish military brass played post-Ataturk until Prime Minister Erdoğan successfully purged several Kemalist officers and that is the role the Egyptian military and General Sisi are performing today.

Sisi is widely expected to relinquish his military post and run for president as a civilian, and just as widely expected to be elected overwhelmingly. One hopes that would satisfy Obama and Kerry, but the point is, rather than pressuring Sisi, we should have supported him and we didn't.

But at least the Egyptians can comfort themselves with the knowledge that most of Kerry's meddling in their country's affairs is being done from a distance. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been so lucky. And so we have perhaps the world's first example of "shuffle diplomacy" as John Kerry shuffles aimlessly between the former and latter in a futile attempt to pound the square peg of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" into the square hole of reality.

Given such estrangement from the real world, surely Kerry was as surprised as anyone in the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement when one of the most vocal opponents of BDS turned out to be none other than the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. While publicly decrying the Israeli settlements, many of the workers building those settlements are Palestinian Arabs earning salaries five times those available from Palestinian employer, if, indeed, such a job could be had at all.

And what do these Palestinian workers and their families do with their five-times-greater salaries? Shop for Israeli products, of course. For -- and to the consternation of Palestinian producers and their "anti-Zionist" BDS supporters, Palestinians actively seek Israeli products because of their higher quality, even when there are cheaper Palestinian equivalents:

Imad is a manufacturer of soap and detergents in Bethlehem. His products used to be labeled in Hebrew but in a fit of patriotism he replaced all the labels with Arabic-only labels.

And his sales plummeted.

Imad says: "I get frustrated when a customer comes to me, asking: 'Where's the Israeli soap?'"

And what is true in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza is true throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, where there has been a clandestine appetite -- and market -- for Israeli goods for as long as there has been an official prohibition against them. The fact is, the Middle East is flooded with Israeli products; the Israelis just take the "Made in Israel" labels off.

But of much more geopolitical portent has been the nod-nod-wink-wink rapprochement between Israel and some of the Sunni Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, which greatly fears an Iranian Shiite hegemony. Defending Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper's "outspoken support of Israel,: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said:

Go to the Arab world and you'll discover... [that] a lot of people are reconsidering their positions[. Many Arab countries now] see Israel not as an enemy but as a friend."

[T]he Arabs are changing.... [M]any of them, sometimes openly and sometimes in corridors and whispers, they say, "Israel is our friend."

Exactly right, and a perfect example of one of Kerry's most egregious misjudgments regarding the Middle East. For the Middle East is very much a say-one-thing-do-another environment. And so the Saudis publicly deny their alliance with Israel while surreptitiously nurturing it to the point where, reportedly, the Saudi deputy defense minister recently met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem. And Iran's mullahs are embarrassed to discover Israeli Jaffa oranges being sold in a Teheran market. And Palestinians know that Ramallah is the de facto capital of "Palestine."

Mahmoud Abbas said little about the settlements until Kerry publicly broached the subject, forcing Abbas's hand. Likewise, regardless of what he says publicly about Israel's security presence in Judea and Samaria, Abbas knows very well that it is precisely that presence that prevents a Hamas takeover. And surely Abbas knows, public rhetoric aside, that the instant he signs a true peace agreement with Israel, one that settles all issues and acknowledges and guarantees Israel's permanent existence as a Jewish state, his life likely will not be worth a plugged shekel.

For all their public rhetoric, Israel and the Arab countries live in the same neighborhood. Many of them face the same threats. And after thousands of years of shared history, Jews and Arabs understand that not all problems can be solved; some can only be managed.

Which is exactly what Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other states were doing.

And then along came Kerry.

Follow Gene Schwimmer on Twitter. Visit Gene at geneschwimmer.com 

How has John Kerry mishandled U.S. Middle East policy? Let us count the ways.

On January 16, after two days of voting, the Egyptian people freely, democratically approved a new constitution that (emphasis mine):

forbids "religion, race, gender or geography" from being the basis to form a political party while guaranteeing freedom of religion and granting, for the first time, Copts the right to build churches without permission of the president. Women are recognized as equals in Egyptian society.

Furthermore, unlike the now defunct constitution, which was "written by the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamists," the new constitution was (emphasis mine) "written by a committee of 50 including women, Christians, one Salafist and one independent Islamist."

Who could possibly have a problem with that?

John Kerry, that's who (emphases mine):

The draft Egyptian constitution passed a public referendum this week, but... the United States urges the interim Egyptian government to fully implement those rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the new constitution for the benefit of the Egyptian people, and to take steps towards reconciliation.

[...]

Democracy is more than any one referendum or election. It is about equal rights and protections under the law for all Egyptians, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

Now either there's an alternative meaning of "equal rights and protections under the law for all Egyptians, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity, or political affiliation," or the new constitution does that.

So again, what is Kerry's problem? Apparently, our secretary of state is miffed that the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the writing the new constitution. As if a new constitution written with the participation of the same Muslim Brotherhood that wrote the old one would guarantee any of the "rights and freedoms" Kerry calls for.

But surely it is more than just that. Judging by his past statements, President Obama clearly, and John Kerry probably, are less concerned about the constitution writing process than by the way the thing came to be written in the first place: after duly elected president (and Muslim Brotherhood member) Morsi was deposed in what undeniably was a military coup.

And which, ordinarily, would be a bad thing. But what Kerry fails to appreciate is that unlike in your typical Latin American banana republic, and notwithstanding military dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy, the military in an Arab state, far from being a threat to democracy, can be its greatest guarantor by enforcing secularism. That was the role the Turkish military brass played post-Ataturk until Prime Minister Erdoğan successfully purged several Kemalist officers and that is the role the Egyptian military and General Sisi are performing today.

Sisi is widely expected to relinquish his military post and run for president as a civilian, and just as widely expected to be elected overwhelmingly. One hopes that would satisfy Obama and Kerry, but the point is, rather than pressuring Sisi, we should have supported him and we didn't.

But at least the Egyptians can comfort themselves with the knowledge that most of Kerry's meddling in their country's affairs is being done from a distance. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been so lucky. And so we have perhaps the world's first example of "shuffle diplomacy" as John Kerry shuffles aimlessly between the former and latter in a futile attempt to pound the square peg of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" into the square hole of reality.

Given such estrangement from the real world, surely Kerry was as surprised as anyone in the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement when one of the most vocal opponents of BDS turned out to be none other than the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. While publicly decrying the Israeli settlements, many of the workers building those settlements are Palestinian Arabs earning salaries five times those available from Palestinian employer, if, indeed, such a job could be had at all.

And what do these Palestinian workers and their families do with their five-times-greater salaries? Shop for Israeli products, of course. For -- and to the consternation of Palestinian producers and their "anti-Zionist" BDS supporters, Palestinians actively seek Israeli products because of their higher quality, even when there are cheaper Palestinian equivalents:

Imad is a manufacturer of soap and detergents in Bethlehem. His products used to be labeled in Hebrew but in a fit of patriotism he replaced all the labels with Arabic-only labels.

And his sales plummeted.

Imad says: "I get frustrated when a customer comes to me, asking: 'Where's the Israeli soap?'"

And what is true in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza is true throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, where there has been a clandestine appetite -- and market -- for Israeli goods for as long as there has been an official prohibition against them. The fact is, the Middle East is flooded with Israeli products; the Israelis just take the "Made in Israel" labels off.

But of much more geopolitical portent has been the nod-nod-wink-wink rapprochement between Israel and some of the Sunni Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, which greatly fears an Iranian Shiite hegemony. Defending Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper's "outspoken support of Israel,: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said:

Go to the Arab world and you'll discover... [that] a lot of people are reconsidering their positions[. Many Arab countries now] see Israel not as an enemy but as a friend."

[T]he Arabs are changing.... [M]any of them, sometimes openly and sometimes in corridors and whispers, they say, "Israel is our friend."

Exactly right, and a perfect example of one of Kerry's most egregious misjudgments regarding the Middle East. For the Middle East is very much a say-one-thing-do-another environment. And so the Saudis publicly deny their alliance with Israel while surreptitiously nurturing it to the point where, reportedly, the Saudi deputy defense minister recently met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem. And Iran's mullahs are embarrassed to discover Israeli Jaffa oranges being sold in a Teheran market. And Palestinians know that Ramallah is the de facto capital of "Palestine."

Mahmoud Abbas said little about the settlements until Kerry publicly broached the subject, forcing Abbas's hand. Likewise, regardless of what he says publicly about Israel's security presence in Judea and Samaria, Abbas knows very well that it is precisely that presence that prevents a Hamas takeover. And surely Abbas knows, public rhetoric aside, that the instant he signs a true peace agreement with Israel, one that settles all issues and acknowledges and guarantees Israel's permanent existence as a Jewish state, his life likely will not be worth a plugged shekel.

For all their public rhetoric, Israel and the Arab countries live in the same neighborhood. Many of them face the same threats. And after thousands of years of shared history, Jews and Arabs understand that not all problems can be solved; some can only be managed.

Which is exactly what Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other states were doing.

And then along came Kerry.

Follow Gene Schwimmer on Twitter. Visit Gene at geneschwimmer.com