Can Hamas War Be Tied to ISIS? Not If You're Kerry


One of these things is just like the other: A strange new flareup in U.S.-Israeli relations erupted on Friday, after a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry drew furious objections from pair of ranking Israeli cabinet ministers.

Kerry was discussing the ISIS threat before a Muslim audience in Washington. He spoke of the need to address a string of Middle East problems that he said frustrated and angered Arab youth and thus helped ISIS’s “recruitment.” One item on his list was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli ministers charged that Kerry was blaming Israel for the rise of ISIS. One, economics minister Naftali Bennett of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, stopped just short of charging Kerry with anti-Semitism. “It turns out that even when a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew,” Bennett said.

The other, information minister Gilad Erdan, a rising Likud star and a member of the elite Security Cabinet, piped in later, declaring that Kerry was “breaking records” in misunderstanding the region. Both claimed Kerry’s words would encourage terrorism.

Their remarks prompted an angry retort that afternoon from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She said the Israeli critics — “especially one particular minister,” apparently Bennett — had “trie[d] to distort” Kerry’s words “for their political purposes.”

In a sign of how seriously Jerusalem took the American anger, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s two top lieutenants, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and defense minister Moshe Yaalon, jumped in on Saturday with strong rebukes of Bennett for undermining Israel’s relations with its closest ally.

Here’s the strange part: Kerry’s comment on Israel echoed — closely, though in milder tone — a fire-breathing speech by Netanyahu himself before the United Nations just two and a half weeks earlier. Netanyahu had said that Israel’s conflict with Hamas is part and parcel of the larger struggle against ISIS. “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas,” he said. He went on to elaborate:

In other words, Hamas and ISIS might be fighting on different fronts, but they pursue the same goals, feed off each other and presumably draw from the same pool of potential extremist recruits. If Israel’s prime minister expects opponents of ISIS to see the two fronts as parts of a single war against radical Islam, why wouldn’t disgruntled Arab teens, outraged by televised images of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, draw the same conclusion? For that matter, why wouldn’t an American secretary of state assume that Israelis see the connection? After all, they brought it up.

Bennett and Erdan were responding to Kerry’s remarks at a State Department reception Thursday marking Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of the sacrifice. Kerry had offered a list of problems in the Middle East that angered Arab youth and spurred “recruitment” to ISIS — and that needed greater efforts to correct. He named joblessness, economic stagnation, the Syrian civil war and intra-Islamic religious disputes. He added that Middle Eastern leaders he’s spoken to unanimously put the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on the list, and that peace on that front could help ease street anger and slow recruitment.

The first Israeli news report on Kerry’s remarks seems to have appeared Thursday in a highly distorted version on settler-run Arutz Sheva-Israel National News. The report didn’t mention any of the other regional problems besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Kerry had cited as spurring ISIS recruitment. In fact, it implied that there were no others. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that Bennett didn’t know he was taking Kerry’s words out of context and distorting their meaning.

On the other hand, after Lieberman attacked him on Saturday for damaging U.S.-Israel relations in a quest for votes, Bennett stood his ground and even doubled down:

The emergence of Lieberman and Yaalon as Kerry’s defenders says a lot about the current state of U.S-Israel ties. Lieberman was regarded as foreign minister in name only for much of his first term in the post, beginning in 2009, treated as a virtual pariah in major capitals because of his reputation for racism, extremism and tactlessness. That he is now a voice of moderation is partly due to his own efforts to reinvent himself and partly a reflection of how Israel’s own reputation has declined.

As for Yaalon, it was just last January that he himself was thoroughly roasted across the Israeli political landscape after being quoted calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic” in his efforts to broker peace. Kerry was said to be deeply angered by Yaalon’s remarks. The current Bennett crisis erupted as Yaalon was preparing to leave Saturday night for a series of meetings in Washington, and it’s possible that his sharp rebuke of Bennett was prompted at least partly by anxiety that the latest crisis would revive memories of his own imbroglio.

Here’s the portion of Kerry’s remarks touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Eid” refers to Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday celebrating Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of his son (the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, though in the Quran’s version it was Isaac’s brother Ishmael on the altar). “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym for ISIS: a-Dawlat al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa-a-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham or greater Syria):

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Can Hamas War Be Tied to ISIS? Not If You're Kerry

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