WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is pushing back hard against Israeli critics of John Kerry, enlisting American Jewish groups to respond to personal attacks on the secretary of state.
In response to some of the harshest anti-Kerry rhetoric, Jewish groups weighed in with their own denunciations.
Administration insiders and Jewish communal officials say some of those rebukes followed direct solicitation by administration officials. But the responses from the Jewish groups also reflect a concern that the tone of some of the Kerry criticism could damage relations between the administration and the Israeli government.
“Even if people, be they in Israel or in the United States, have disagreements with what John Kerry is proposing, it’s absolutely essential that those disagreements are expressed on the substance and not through personal attacks,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, which issued a statement condemning a small number of Israeli rabbis who warned that Kerry could face divine punishment.
Administration officials and Jewish groups sympathetic to Kerry’s initiative say there is a longer-term agenda in preempting attacks on the framework peace agreement the Obama administration is expected to propose soon.
The administration has tapped sympathetic Jewish figures and groups to prepare the ground in the Jewish community for the difficult compromises on territory and Jerusalem that will be embedded in the framework peace plan.
Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman, is traveling to Jewish communities around the country advocating for the compromises likely to appear in the framework proposal. J Street, the dovish Israel policy group, has launched a campaign of town hall meetings across the country to support a two-state solution.
The harshest public attacks on Kerry – the ones that drew the rebukes from American Jewish groups – have come from fairly marginal Israeli figures. U.S. officials, however, also are upset by criticism of Kerry coming from more significant figures within the Israeli government.
Senior Obama administration officials say Kerry has made his unhappiness clear in the daily phone calls he has with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prime minister has been responsive. According to The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu told a party faction meeting last week that the best way to disagree with the Obama administration is by “substantively discussing the issues and not by engaging in personal attacks.” Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told a group of businessmen in Tel Aviv that Kerry is a “true friend of Israel.”
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told JTA that “Throughout his nearly 30-year tenure in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state, Secretary Kerry has been a staunch supporter of Israel and of strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Most of the statements from centrist Jewish groups were triggered by remarks last month by Moti Yogev, a backbench Knesset member from the Jewish Home party who said in an interview that Kerry’s “obsessive” focus on the talks “may have anti-Semitic undertones.”
The American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress condemned Yogev’s remarks. The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, called the comments “offensive” and “ beyond the bounds of legitimate critique.”
But criticism of Kerry has come, too, from Israelis who are closer to the center of power.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted in the Israeli media last month privately calling Kerry’s peace efforts “messianic.” And last week, after Kerry had warned that a failure to achieve a peace agreement could spur more boycotts against Israel, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett accused Kerry of “amplifying” the boycott movement while Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz called Kerry’s warning “intolerable.”
Even as they condemned Yogev, Jewish groups have not necessarily been on the same page as the Obama administration regarding the remarks from more influential Israeli officials.
Foxman called the furor over Yaalon’s alleged comments a “tempest in a teapot,” noting that they were made in private. The ADL also issued an open letter to Kerry criticizing his warning that a peace setback could fuel boycotts of Israel.
Still, Jewish groups have tried to strike a supportive tone. Foxman’s letter criticizing Kerry also stressed that the ADL backs his efforts to achieve a settlement.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been responding not only to attacks from Israeli officials but also from nongovernmental groups. Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, cited among other “mischaracterizations” of Kerry’s record a satirical video in which an Israeli actor bewigged with a gray bouffant declares Jerusalem holy to Klingons and Hobbits, among other groups.
Dani Dayan, a senior Yesha Council official, said he was amazed at Psaki’s reaction. The satire in the video, he said, was aimed at Kerry’s policies, not his person.
“It’s nonsense, he’s not anti-Semitic – I even suspect he’s philo-Semitic,” said Dayan. “His policies are misguided, the solutions he proposes do not solve the problems.”
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