Former US Secretary of State John Kerry has described his complex relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his tenure under president Barack Obama, in his memoir, “Every Day Is Extra,” which is being published on September 4
In excerpts of the book obtained by Jewish Insider, Kerry writes of Netanyahu’s conduct during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza.
Describing the Israeli leader’s demeanor, Kerry notes: “It was [one of] the few times I saw Bibi very subdued, absent his normal energy and bravado. To see the leader of Israel under siege like that really touched me… I saw Bibi in that moment more vulnerable than I’d ever seen him before.”
Kerry also alleges a ceasefire draft with Hamas — which was heavily criticized by the Israeli cabinet and brought much wrath upon his head — was leaked to the media by Netanyahu, who had made some of the proposals in it himself.
“‘We were in the middle of negotiating it based on your input. Now I see it in the press? This is outrageous,’” Kerry recalls telling Netanyahu. “‘The humanitarian ceasefire was your idea. And now you leak this document to make it sound like I am trying to advance Hamas’s position?'”
He writes that an “element of personal trust had been lost” after that point.
‘Everyone in this region lies all the time’
On the 2013-2014 peace process with the Palestinians, Kerry claims it was Netanyahu’s stated “willingness to make tough compromises” to make peace — even risking his own coalition — that helped him persuade a “skeptical” President Obama that it was worth resuming the peace process.
Kerry recalls a conversation he had with Netanyahu following a speech Obama gave in Israel in 2013.
“I met with Bibi at the King David Hotel,” Kerry remembers. “He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘John, I’m willing to give this effort a try, but there are two things you should know: first, everyone in this region lies all the time and you Americans have a hard time understanding that; second, the most I can do may be less than the least Abbas could ever accept.’”
“Bibi’s attitude was ‘I’m open to solving this problem if I can have all my needs met.’ That included his political needs with his coalition… Bibi was fond of saying, ‘Take all my excuses away.’”
Kerry also recalls conversations with then-opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who stressed it was “imperative for Israel to reach long-lasting peace” with the Palestinians.
He also writes of Netanyahu reluctant agreement in 2013 to release Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo Accords — a demand Palestinians had made for negotiations to go forward.
“I told Bibi in no uncertain terms, ‘If you’re not willing to release them, I understand — but this won’t work and I’m done with it.’ When he was confronted with this deadline, for the first time, he said, “Okay, let me see what I can do.'”
Kerry notes that Netanyahu rejected a regional security plan drafted by US Gen. John Allen that would have required a gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. The plan called for US troops to guard the border of a future Palestinian state, with Israeli troops ready to resume security control of the West Bank “in full force within hours.”
But after the meeting between Kerry, Allen, and Israeli leaders, Netanyahu rejected the plan, insisting that Israel needed to maintain a long-term military presence in the West Bank.
“It was now clear to all of us that Bibi was not interested in actually addressing the security questions in a way that could allow for the eventual withdrawal of the IDF,” Kerry recalls. “I concluded that this wasn’t about security.
“I let him know I thought he was creating an insurmountable stumbling block if he couldn’t accept the best advice of one of his ally’s most brilliant military minds. He smiled and said we’d table the discussion for now.”
The former top diplomat also writes that the Obama administration considered releasing Jonathan Pollard in 2014 in a bid to salvage the struggling peace process. He notes that Obama didn’t believe Netanyahu would ever allow the creation of a Palestinian state, but was willing to consider making the gesture towards Israel.
Kerry writes that he urged the Israeli leader to produce an offer that could allow talks to continue, and that Obama would weigh freeing Pollard in return. “I told Bibi point-blank, ‘You’re not doing this for Abbas. You’re doing it to empower us to get what you want.'”
Kerry writes that it was ultimately Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to join several international organizations in violation of the agreement that torpedoed the US peace efforts, giving Netanyahu “ammunition” to blame the Palestinians for the failed process.
‘The right thing to do’
Netanyahu’s tense relationship with Obama was exacerbated in the final days of the administration after the US opted not to veto Resolution 2334, giving the green light for the first Security Council resolution condemning settlements since 1979.
The Israeli government reacted fiercely, withdrawing ambassadors from countries that sponsored the resplution and threatening retribution. Netanyahu subsequently accused the Obama administration of secretly formulating the “despicable anti-Israeli resolution” with the Palestinians.
“We all understood the political firestorm we would face if we didn’t veto the resolution,” Kerry writes. “There were some who argued for sucking it up because it wasn’t worth the political price. President Obama wasn’t willing to make a decision that he thought was counter to US interests simply because of the politics.”
Kerry claims that the announcement by Donald Trump, then president-elect, that he would appoint David Friedman as ambassador to Israel influenced the decision not to veto, as did Israel’s advancement of a bill that would allow the state to legalize West Bank outposts.
“President-elect Trump had announced he was going to appoint an ambassador to Israel who was a hard-core proponent of the settlements and an avowed opponent of the two-state solution,” the former secretary writes. “At the same time, the Israelis had shown themselves to be completely disdainful of our policy by starting a process of formally legalizing outposts… We could not defend in the UN Israeli actions that amounted to a massive and unprecedented acceleration of the settlement enterprise.”
Kerry notes that he knew he would lose Jewish friends over the decision, but believed that “it was the right thing” to do.
Of Netanyahu’s controversial decision to speak before Congress in 2015 against the White House’s wishes, to oppose the Iran nuclear deal Kerry was central to negotiating, Kerry writes that he was “disappointed in him… I thought we deserved better than a speech that hit below the belt.”