Let's concede for a moment that most of us don't believe the United States should be taking sides in conflicts abroad. Even so, most Americans would probably agree that at a minimum, our diplomatic efforts should not cause unnecessary harm. Which brings me to Secretary of State John Kerry's recent misadventure in the Middle East.
It seems like a rather big deal that Egypt, Israel, Fatah, Jordan, Saudi Arabia -- ostensibly all allies of ours -- agree on something. This development, one imagines, might be something the United States would be interested in fostering rather than destroying. Certainly, the idea that Hamas' power should be neutralized and the influence of the "moderate" Palestinian Authority expanded sounds like a plan worth pursuing.
Or so you would think. But instead, it looks as if Kerry ignored an Egyptian-led cease-fire effort and handed Israelis a document that offered them this:
--Rather than empower Fatah, it would have recognized Hamas as the legitimate authority in the Gaza Strip, although it's considered a terrorist organization by the Justice Department and an entity whose founding principle and driving purpose is to eliminate Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.
--Rather than choke off this organization's lifeline, the agreement would have allowed it to collect billions in "charity," which it would have been able to use to rearm, retrench and re-engage in hostilities.
--All the while, it would have made no demands on Hamas to purge itself of rockets or tunnels or other weaponry that destabilizes the area. And at the same time, the agreement would have limited Israel's ability to take them out. (Update: This final point is disputed by U.S. officials.)
Hamas would have conceded nothing. No nation would have accepted such terms -- not after what's transpired -- and naturally, it was rejected unanimously by Israel's Cabinet, which includes the ideological left, center and right. The proposal not only irritated Israel -- a nation often accused of warmongering for kicks -- but also upset Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
All of which, one presumes, a seasoned statesman such as Kerry should have foreseen. So why did Kerry offer a proposal driven by Qatar and Turkey, two of Hamas' allies and Israel's antagonists? Qatar not only funds one of the leading anti-Israel propaganda outfits on the planet, Al-Jazeera, but also is, according to Shimon Peres -- hardly a warmongering Likudnik -- the "world's largest funder of terror" because of its financial support for Hamas in Gaza. And Turkey, which often sounds like some well-known progressive Twitter accounts, recently accused the Jews of committing genocide, called Israel a "terror state" and compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.
Though we've often pressured Israel to shorten these kinds of operations, only a historian would be able to come up with an instance of the United States pressuring Israel to accept such a lousy agreement. So naturally, the Israeli press, including left-wing newspapers such as Haaretz, went after Kerry pretty hard. The United States, according to reports, believes that Israeli officials misrepresented the deal. And the Obama administration pushed back yesterday. "It's simply not the way partners and allies treat each other," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who seems to think Israel has state-controlled media.
But according to nearly every news report, Kerry was the one who brought Turkey and Qatar into the mix. And it is undeniable that Kerry went to Paris immediately after negotiations collapsed and met with officials from Turkey and Qatar to discuss a potential cease-fire in Gaza. Kerry did not meet with Egypt or the Palestinian Authority or Israel. That seems odd -- inexplicable, even -- but it certainly lends credence to Israeli media accounts.
David Ignatius at The Washington Post argues that "Kerry's mistake isn't any bias against Israel but rather a bias in favor of an executable, short-term deal." But it's conceivable that both of those factors played a part. As a political consideration, the administration would have benefited from a short-term deal. Perhaps because of tragic loss of life, the United States would rather see a cease-fire than Hamas dealt a mortal blow. And that is almost certainly one of the reasons Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.
It is worth remembering that Kerry, who is rightly considered a longtime ally of Israel, has changed his tone considerably since joining the administration. He's accused Israel of being a few short steps removed from "apartheid"; he peddled the myth of Israel's imminent demographic demise; and he was conveniently caught on a hot mic sarcastically dismissing Israel's pinpoint strikes and insinuating that he, John Kerry, was not invited to embark on cease-fire talks because Israel was buying time to finish off Hamas. (If that's Israel's goal, it should have invited Kerry earlier.)
But maybe the United States doesn't want to take sides anymore. Maybe the Obama administration's recent dealings in the Middle East reflect this attitude. Maybe Kerry's actions were not a mistake but an attempt to show Israel's enemies that we can be evenhanded. Because we have either an incompetent secretary of state or a momentous shift in Middle East policy. Either way, Kerry's actions have created a bigger mess.