WASHINGTON — In his new memoir, published Tuesday, former US secretary of state John Kerry laments the toxic relationship between the Obama White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly the latter’s attempt to scuttle the Iran nuclear accord that Kerry had worked so relentlessly to broker.
Netanyahu, Kerry says, engaged in a “total departure from protocol and tradition” when he accepted then speaker of the House John Boehner’s backdoor invitation for him to address a joint session of Congress to lambaste the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
What’s more, he adds, the Israeli premier used that forum to misrepresent the contents of the landmark agreement (which, at that point, had yet to be finalized).
“It was no surprise that Netanyahu grossly distorted the agreement,” Kerry writes of Netanyahu’s 2015 speech. “He delivered a well-crafted but purely political statement, not an honest analysis of nonproliferation strategy or a substantive argument for how one would in fact make Israel safer without an agreement.”
“But then again,” Kerry goes on, “everyone understood that the speech was an appeal to the gut — an emotional screed calculated to mobilize his supporters in the United States and scare senators from approving the agreement.”
The longtime Massachusetts senator’s 584-page memoir, titled “Every Day Is Extra,” charts his privileged upbringing, from his education at the prestigious St. Paul’s School and Yale to his service in Vietnam and anti-war activism, and eventually to his long career in public service, including his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2004.
The last two hundred pages of the book deal with his tenure as former president Barack Obama’s top diplomat, with chunky passages dedicated to two of his biggest priorities: solidifying an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and reaching an agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
In one compelling passage, Kerry explains how he “lost faith” in Netanyahu after alleging that a ceasefire draft with Hamas during the 2014 war in Gaza — which was heavily criticized by the Israeli cabinet — was leaked to the media by the Israeli prime minister, who had made some of the proposals in it himself.
But their relationship would rupture even further a year later, as the Obama administration got closer to clinching the hard-won Iran pact.
Kerry recounted a meeting he had with Netanyahu’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, in his State Department office in January 2015, one day before Boehner announced the prime minister would address Congress to rail at the Iran talks. (It was Dermer who orchestrated the speech.)
“I was stunned,” Kerry writes. “Ron sat in my office the day before knowing this announcement was coming and without giving me even a subtle heads-up that he had been working with the speaker to engineer such a visit. I was blindsided, along with the president and everyone else in the administration.”
While Obama and Netanyahu had a rocky relationship from the get-go — the first public sign of friction came when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office in front of the cameras over the US president’s calls for Israel to return to the 1967 lines with land swaps — Kerry says the speech to Congress permanently ruined it.
“I knew that Israel’s mistrust in Iran’s leaders ran deep — we all shared it — but in accepting congressional Republicans’ invitation, the Israeli government revealed its disrespect for President Obama,” he writes. “The relationship between the two presidents never recovered.” (Netanyahu is in fact Israel’s prime minister, not president.)
In a 40-page chapter titled “Preventing a War,” Kerry recounts the long US journey to clinch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, the Iran deal’s formal name.
At one point, Kerry explains the US decision to change its stance on allowing Iran the capacity to enrich uranium, having previously opposed Iranian enrichment.
In early talks, Iranian representatives said they were entitled to enrichment capabilities as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kerry writes, but he and Obama eventually changed their minds as a matter of negotiating tactics.
“Leaving aside whether Iran had the ‘right’ to enrich, deep down I also understood that unless we were willing to discuss the possibility that Iran’s enrichment could continue under carefully defined limits, there was no way we would gain the access, accountability, transparency and restraint necessary to know for certain Iran was not pursuing a weapons program,” Kerry writes. “There might not even be a way to get Iran to the table”
One reason the US modified its stance on that issue was that the other world powers involved in the negotiations — England, France, Germany, Russia and China — had also shifted on it.
“The position of the United States had long been that any enrichment, however minor, would be a deal breaker,” Kerry writes. “But our P5+1 negotiating partners unanimously moved away from this position. They decided, particularly given what other countries were doing, that some future enrichment would have to be discussed for the Iranians to take any negotiation seriously.”
He further says that previous administrations took that stance privately with the Iranians, despite insisting the opposite to the public.
“I… learned in private conversations that despite its public position, the George W. Bush administration had quietly, privately come to agree with this position, though they had never landed on what structure or levels that might take,” Kerry adds. “Deep down, I agreed too. And, as I came to learn, so did President Obama.”