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John Kerry Makes No Apologies

Delivers his best speech on Israel to his toughest audience yet

Yair Rosenberg
March 04, 2014
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2014. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2014. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

John Kerry has come a long way since deciding to take on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the defining endeavor of his diplomatic career. Tonight at AIPAC, he delivered a ringing and robust defense of his efforts to resolve both the Iranian nuclear threat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in a key that even the most skeptical of Israel’s supporters could understand, if not entirely accept. Showcasing the subtle sensitivity to Jewish insecurities he has honed giving interviews to Israeli media, coupled with his familiar stentorian tones, Kerry managed to make his policy points while avoiding the landmines that have bedeviled him and many other diplomats.

He opened with a paean to Israeli and American exceptionalism, calling both democracies “lights unto the nations,” and reassuring the assembled delegates that “as Israel faces significant challenges to her future, it is America who will stand firmly by her side.” Then came the turn to Iran, the greatest source of tension between AIPAC and the current administration. “We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon–period,” Kerry avowed, to a standing ovation. Only after catering to the crowd’s comfort zone did Kerry defend diplomacy, with one-liners carefully crafted to dispel any accusations of naivete. “This is not a process about trusting Tehran, it is about testing Tehran,” he said. “And you can be sure that if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.”

Finally, Kerry pivoted to peace. “No one needs to explain the importance of peace and security to a mother who has just sent her daughter to the army,” Kerry said, taking care to avoid the patronizing tone that has often characterized the rhetoric of Western diplomats towards Israel and her supporters. He praised Netanyahu’s “demonstrated” courage and “guts” in pursuit of peace, as well as Palestinian President Abbas’s staunch opposition to violence. And he acknowledged Israel’s fears of being pressured into a deal that would bring a Potemkin peace. “When Bibi looks me in the eye and says, ‘I can’t accept a deal with the Palestinians that doesn’t make the people of Israel safer,’ we agree 100 percent,” Kerry said. “We will never let the West Bank turn into another Gaza.” (Conveniently, he avoided mentioning the words “settlements” or “occupation.”)

For good measure, Kerry then joined the BDS-bashing brigade, unequivocally rejecting the movement calling for blacklisting Israel, and following in the footsteps of AIPAC President Bob Cohen and Sen. Chuck Schumer, who earlier in the evening deemed the BDS movement “a modern form of what we call anti-Semitism.” Kerry piled on: “We must also stand together and with a single voice reject arbitrary and unwarranted boycotts of Israel. For more than 30 years, I have staunchly, loudly and unapologetically opposed boycotts of Israel, and I will continue to staunchly, loudly and unapologetically oppose boycotts of Israel. That will never change.” AIPAC may not have won on Iran, but it’s clear that both the administration and Congress are happy to condemn the highly unpopular BDS movement as a consolation prize.

Kerry closed on a personal note, recalling a visit to Masada many years ago. There, at the urging of his guide, Yadin Roman, Kerry shouted across the desert “Am Yisrael Chai”–the nation of Israel lives–and listened to its echo reverberate across the plain. Both Israel and AIPAC, he said, secure that survival. And peace, he implied, would ensure it.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.