In certain circles, it is fashionable to dismiss John Kerry, typically by casting him as naïve, Pollyannaish. That is a major mischaracterization. Whether his current apparent success in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to meet together bears fruit or not, Kerry is an immensely capable man with a distinguished public record that stretches back more than four decades.
It was in April of 1971 that Kerry first came to public attention. He was 27 years old at the time, a leader of the major veterans organization opposing continuation of the war in Vietnam, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but unknown to the broader public. Senator William Fulbright, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was holding hearings on the war and invited Kerry to testify. And testify he did, speaking of his comrades in arms during the war who told of the times “they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”
And, then, in a question that jolted the nation, “[H]ow do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984, and again in 1990, and again in 1996, and again in 2002, and finally, though by then tarnished, in 2008.
“Tarnished” is not too strong a word to use, but there’s a more precise word. Kerry was swiftboated in the 2004 presidential election, an election won by George W. Bush and marked by a series of vituperative attacks against Kerry. These focused mostly on a controversy over his war record as a commander of swift boats. The attacks were spurious but effective, and they wrapped around him like a shroud.
All the while, Kerry was developing genuine expertise in foreign affairs. He was the main player in the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam; he fingered the illicit American aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua; and yes, he voted — and came to regret his vote — for the Iraq war.
And now we are learning that he is indefatigable. He may yet be worn down by the Israel-Palestine conflict, as many others have been, but so far there’s no sign of that. And the thing to remember, the thing so many observers of the process seem to forget (or perhaps never to have known) is that Kerry’s actions are the product of careful analysis and elegant planning. Indeed, he may be among the least spontaneous of politicians.
As a resident of Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts, I can attest that most of the state’s political oxygen was consumed by Ted Kennedy. There were long periods when Kerry seemed an “also served.” But that was more how it seemed to us, the voters, than how it played in Washington, where Kerry worked away on the foreign policy issues that he came to master.
Which brings us to his current effort.
There is no point in running through the frightfully long list of American statesmen who have tried tackling the Israel-Palestine conflict. They have, in the main, been very able people. But in the end, none of them made a shekel’s worth of difference. An anemic agreement here and there, posing as a breakthrough, only to be ignored, cast aside, subverted or violated by the principal actors, the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. And then, with scarcely an intermission, back to the default condition: bankruptcy.
Now comes Kerry — tenacious, thorough, utterly committed to succeed where so many others have failed. And if, as has been widely rumored, the day-to-day burden of urging the two sides to seek a comprehensive breakthrough is managed by Martin Indyk, then what seemed Quixotic yesterday may seem within plausible range tomorrow.
In brief, there’s cause for hope. Not for relaxation, much less celebration. But even hope has been in short supply in the region these last sterile years.
Survey after survey shows that both Israel’s Jews and the Palestinians, in Israel and in the West Bank and in Gaza, too, want a way out of the morass. Two states for two peoples, or perhaps some form of federation. But neither political system reflects these preferences nor do the relevant publics have have any faith that such a solution, the kind that would mean an end to the historic conflict is within reach. John Kerry’s job is to prove them wrong. And no one who has had that job before brings to it the resources, both personal and political, that Secretary Kerry does.
Contact Leonard Fein at firstname.lastname@example.org