Last week John Kerry’s peace process moved from its mannerist phase to something else—something very dangerous and destructive. At a State Department reception celebrating the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, Kerry said Israel was responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.
“As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the ISIL coalition,” said Kerry, “there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt–and I see a lot of heads nodding–they had to respond to.”
Israeli officials, led by Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, criticized Kerry’s comments: “It turns out that even when a British Muslim beheads a British Christian,” said Bennett, referring to the ISIS fighter with a British accent who murdered British aid worker Alan Henning, “there will always be those who blame the Jews.”
Nonsense, nonsense, said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf. “Either he [Bennett] didn’t read what the secretary said or he was given false information,” she added. The Secretary of State never blamed the Israeli occupation of Arab lands for the rise of a self-described caliphate that crucifies and beheads its opponents. Kerry’s comments, said Harf, “were distorted for political gains.”
However, it’s difficult for the administration to make that case when Kerry’s original comments were uttered only for political purposes. After all, he was addressing an audience largely comprising ambassadors and officials from Muslim majority states and other representatives from the region. Most of them are of course inclined to agree with Secretary Kerry—at least in public. That’s why Kerry saw so many heads nodding—including, perhaps, American imams who are now carrying away the lesson that it is OK to blame Israel for the problems in your communities here at home. After all, confronting the sort of extremism that has motivated a number of terror plots here—like the Boston Marathon bombing—is scary. Safer to hang it on the Jews—the Secretary of State did.
However, the larger political purpose of Kerry’s remarks was to generate support to recharge the moribund peace process—and give the White House he serves some political cover. In echoing a longstanding Muslim world information campaign—blame the Jews—Kerry was currying favor with those same states that have reason to be mad at the administration.
After all, in private consultation with Obama administration officials, Muslim world envoys are likely angry at the White House for policies that have helped drive the Levant’s Sunni Arab majority into the arms of the Islamic State. The administration’s unqualified support of the central government in Baghdad, as well as its failure to stop Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine in Syria, has many of Washington’s traditional regional partners convinced that the U.S. has partnered with Iran. Abandoned by the White House, it’s no surprise the Sunnis see the Islamic State as protection against the Iranian axis.
And of course in their most private moments, late at night when they can’t sleep, those regional leaders who confided in Kerry are perhaps aware that they bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the advent of the Islamic State. It is they whose disastrous policies—from western North Africa to the Gulf sheikhdoms on the Persian Gulf—made the Arab Spring uprisings inevitable. For it was they who visited every imaginable humiliation and depredation upon their own peoples—from Egypt and Syria to Libya and Yemen. And they justified their security apparatuses and emergency laws—i.e., torture, collective punishment, and murder—by reasoning that all precautions were necessary so long as there was still war with Israel, still plagued by the pestilent Jews.
The Islamic State is both a refutation and the culmination of the vicious ideas that Arab regimes survived on for more than half a century. It’s not Israel that is to blame for the terrible and comprehensive failures of Arab societies, but the Arabs themselves. The Islamic State was built according to the designs of Muslims—not Jews, not Christians or Zoroastrians or space aliens. As it turns out, the dream that was supposed to be the long awaited restoration of Muslim power and glory—in a word, the caliphate—is nothing but a bloody nightmare.
The only possible upside of the conflict now engulfing the region from Iraq to Lebanon is that the Arabs understand they can ill afford to fool themselves at present. At last, the war they are engaged in really is existential, for the regimes and the people, and it has nothing to do with Israel. It’s not entirely clear why John Kerry seeks to revive a lie that cost so many—Arabs and Jews—so much.