Secretary of State John Kerry Is Visiting Nine Countries but Not Israel. What’s Up?

On February 24, 2013, the new secretary of state, John Kerry, leaves on his first trip abroad. He will visit nine countries, four in Western Europe and five in what is loosely defined as the Muslim, Arab world.  But he will not visit Israel, even after intense speculation in Washington that Israel was a certain stop on his itinerary. What’s up?

The question is relevant, because it immediately stirs memories of what happened in 2009. In June of that year, just a few months into his historic presidency, Barack Obama visited Cairo for good and important reasons but then refused to take advantage of geography and make the short hop to Jerusalem. He might at the time have been angry about Israel’s settlements policy. The upshot was that Obama got off on the wrong foot in his dealings with Israel, and nothing much happened in U.S.-Israel relations for the next four years, even as the Mideast neighborhood itself became engulfed in uncertain democracy-building, violent upheavals and what looked like a determined Iranian move toward nuclear weapons.

Therefore, it was assumed that once Obama’s re-election was behind him and dreams of bringing peace to the Holy Land danced before his eyes, he would move quickly to improve relations with Israel, a necessary first step to masterminding a sensible American policy for a region in turmoil. And he did move. The White House announced that Obama would be going to Israel, Egypt and Jordan on March 20. When rumors circulated shortly after John Kerry became secretary of state that he would soon be visiting the Middle East, it was quickly assumed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that Israel would be one of his stops for at least two reasons: first, to show the Israelis that they are not going to be forgotten a second time by the Obama administration; and second, to lay the groundwork for Obama’s visit to Israel.

But Kerry will not stop in Israel. A number of reasons have been advanced, but none that make terribly much sense. First, Israel does not really have a government, since, after recent elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet finished the complicated task of forming a new government. Second, since the president is going to be in Israel anyway in late March, what is the point of Kerry being there in early March? It’s argued that it is redundant, or it is putting too much pressure on Israel.  Third, it’s Kerry’s way of telling the world that he will not allow the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum to cloud his vision of America’s place in the world. This is all sophisticated nonsense.

No matter the final shape of the new Israeli government, or when it will formally be proclaimed, it will be Netanyahu who will speak for Israel, and his vision and policy that will prevail. If Kerry visited Israel on his extensive maiden voyage, he would have a golden opportunity to set the stage for the president’s visit, in which the secretary will play a part in any case. Remember, in this administration, the secretary of state is not going to set American policy.  Obama sets policy.  But the secretary can gather information and impressions that will help the president prepare for his Israel visit. Finally, whether the United States likes it or not, the Middle East has a way of capturing everyone’s attention, whenever it chooses to. Imagine Syria splintering apart even more. Imagine another Benghazi type tragedy. Imagine Mali exploding once again.  Imagine Iran doing something deliberately provocative, requiring a response of some kind.

Kerry, by skipping Israel, is missing an opportunity to create a better relationship with Israel. That’s too bad, because Kerry could have done what his boss did not do at the beginning of his first administration—namely, ease Israel’s chronic uneasiness by coordinating policy in the Middle East. It’s always easier when the U.S. and Israel are playing from the same sheet of music. Without Israel’s cooperation or at least understanding, the United States cannot do very much to advance the Palestinian issue, and the Arab world has always said that the U.S. can solve nothing in the Middle East without first solving the Palestinian problem.