US Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama’s anticipated nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is a frequent visitor to Israel, with a strong pro-Israel voting record, who last spring assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem that they need have “no doubt” about Obama’s determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Kerry has been a staunch defender of Obama’s stance on Iran, and last March denounced the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for taking overly aggressive positions on the Iranian nuclear threat. After Romney published an op-ed slamming Obama’s “feckless” approach, Kerry stormed that, “Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program.”
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry has also been a strong critic of Israeli settlement expansion and of Israeli restrictions on supplies going into Gaza.
While he is a Catholic, two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish. He found out more than 20 years ago that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, but only learned during his failed 2004 presidential campaign that his paternal grandfather was also Jewish.
A genealogist hired by the Boston Globe established that Kerry’s grandfather Frederick was born to a Jewish family in a small town in the Czech Republic. “This is incredible stuff,” Kerry told the Globe. “I think it is more than interesting. It is a revelation.”
Frederick Kerry was born as Fritz Kohn, changed his name to Kerry in 1902, immigrated to the United States in 1905 — and committed suicide in a Boston hotel in 1921.
Before the family learned of its Jewish heritage, Kerry’s brother Cameron in 1983 converted to Judaism, and married an Orthodox Jewish woman. Cameron, too, has visited Israel and he campaigned in the Jewish community on behalf of his brother in 2004, discussing John’s views on Israel, and appearing along with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, writer-comedian Larry David, and other Jewish elected officials.
Cameron Kerry said at the time that his brother often joined his family for Shabbat dinner, though the senator had never come to a family Passover seder.
On his last visit to Israel last spring, John Kerry told Peres of Obama’s determination to thwart Iran, “If I can just say to you and to the people of Israel: I hope there is no doubt about President Obama’s seriousness and commitment that Iran should not have and cannot have a nuclear weapon.” He added: “The president has made it clear that he is not talking about containment, he is talking about prevention.”
At the Democratic Party convention last fall, Kerry quoted Netanyahu praising the Obama administration in a bid to show that Republicans have “lied” about the president and Israel.
“Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table,” Kerry declared. “Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done.”
But, he went on, “Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight — he said our two countries have ‘exactly the same policy … our security cooperation is unprecedented’ … When it comes to Israel, I’ll take the word of Israel’s prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.”
On Middle East affairs, Kerry has frequently urged rapid progress toward a two-state solution, penalties for settlement expansion and, until the deepening of civil war, engagement with Syria.
In 2009, not long after Obama took office, he said in a speech that, “The Obama administration presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new beginning where America reclaims the role of an active and creative agent for peace.”
Addressing the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, he urged a direct US role in Israel-Syria talks, and said negotiations could be nudged along by loosening sanctions against Syria. “Loosening certain sanctions in return for verifiable changes in behavior could actually benefit US businesses, and the sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks,” he said.
On West Bank settlements, Kerry said in the same address that US policy opposing expansion for decades has “existed on paper alone.”
“Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating — with actions rather than words — that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank,” Kerry said.
He was critical as well of Israeli limitations on humanitarian relief into Gaza following the previous winter’s Operation Cast Lead. Kerry was reported to have intervened personally to allow in truckloads of pasta after Israeli bureaucrats had determined that rice was satisfactory relief.
“I raised this with our Israeli friends,” he said. “We need to broaden the definition of what is able to go in as a matter of Palestinian aid.”
In the address he also said getting Iran to end its suspected nuclear program was a priority; Hamas participation in any process was still stringently contingent on recognizing Israel and ending terrorism; Arab nations must play a role in suppressing Hamas’s influence and stopping the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip; the United States would continue to guarantee Israel’s security.
Having just returned from a visit to the region, Kerry said he learned in his meetings with leaders of Arab nations that they had replaced the infamous “three noes” of the 1968 Khartoum conference, which counted out any dealings with Israel, with three new “noes”: “No Iranian nukes, no Iranian meddling and no Iranian hegemony.”
He also swatted down a questioner who suggested Israel de-nuke in parallel with Iran. Kerry said the Arab leaders with whom he met did not even mention Israel’s nuclear capacity.