Kerry, Obama, and the Middle East
Though the secretary of state’s style may exasperate White House staffers, their boss owes his presence in the Oval Office, in no small part, to Kerry. During his 2004 presidential race, Kerry gave the young Barack Obama, then a little-known state senator and law professor from Illinois, his first appearance on the national political stage, choosing him as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Four years later, Kerry was one of the first major Democratic officeholders to endorse Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.
After Obama took office, Kerry worked hard for the White House in his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a kind of envoy at large. In 2009, he convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to consent to a runoff in his country’s disputed presidential election. In 2011, he was dispatched to Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden to persuade local officials to return the tail of an American helicopter that had crashed at the site.
(I should disclose that I unintentionally became the focus of Kerry’s diplomatic efforts around this time. While working for The New York Times and researching a book in 2008, I was kidnapped with two Afghan colleagues by the Taliban. Taken to the tribal areas of Pakistan, we were imprisoned for seven months before escaping. While we were held hostage, Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and numerous other American officials, including the late Richard Holbrooke, repeatedly asked the Pakistani military to locate and rescue us. The Pakistanis insisted we were being held prisoner in Afghanistan, and declined to help. Today three Americans—a soldier, Bowe Bergdahl; an aid worker, Warren Weinstein; and a tourist, Caitlin Coleman—are being held captive in Pakistan’s tribal areas.)
In the end, what cemented Kerry’s bond with Obama was less his diplomatic achievements than his ability to impersonate another tall, wealthy Massachusetts politician with good hair: Kerry served as Mitt Romney’s surrogate during weeks of preparation for the 2012 presidential debates. During mock debates, Kerry channeled Romney so effectively that, aides to both men say, he got under Obama’s skin.
“I don’t think I missed one argument Romney made,” Kerry told me. By the end of debate season, Kerry had developed a new rapport with the president, according to their aides. Jen Psaki, having worked as a spokesperson for both men, says that despite their divergent backgrounds, Obama and Kerry share certain key traits: they eschew retail politics; they rely on a small coterie of aides; and they are fundamentally private people. Psaki says that while both men can turn on the charm when they need to work a crowd, they would “prefer to be in the Situation Room.” They derive more enjoyment, she says, from “grappling with tough global issues than political fund-raising or litigating yet another partisan fight on the Senate floor.”
When they did debate prep together last fall, Obama told Kerry that he regretted his failure to visit Israel during his first term. After Obama’s reelection, the president and Kerry agreed that the U.S. should try to revive Middle East negotiations before the Palestinians again pushed for statehood, at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013.
Kerry has declined to describe these conversations with Obama, but he says the president and his staff fully supported the effort to try to jump-start talks. “The president, Tom Donilon, and now Susan [Rice]—we have an excellent working relationship,” Kerry told me, referring to Obama’s previous and current national-security advisers. “They’ve allowed me to go out and take my initiative, while I keep the president abreast and ask for advice every step of the way.”
“He guides it,” Kerry said, referring to Obama’s stewardship of the talks. “He has a very strong view of how he wants it done.”
In March, Kerry accompanied Obama on a three-day visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. In private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pushed for a resumption of negotiations. At a final press conference before returning to Washington, Obama announced that he was handing the pursuit of talks over to Kerry.
“I can’t guarantee that [successful negotiations are] going to happen,” Obama said at the time. “What I can guarantee is that Secretary Kerry is going to be spending a good deal of time in discussions with the parties.”
Kerry dove into negotiations. He met alone with Abbas for two hours in Amman and then flew to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu and three of his aides.
He faced an enormous task. Palestinians had publicly described various preconditions for talks: a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank; border negotiations based on Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries; and the release of 104 Palestinians jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. But Netanyahu’s government—a weak coalition dependent on the support of right-wing pro-settlement parties—had insisted it would accept no preconditions.
Despite widespread skepticism, Kerry pressed on, returning in April to Jerusalem and Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital in the West Bank. After 24 hours of talks with both sides, Kerry held a press conference at the airport in Tel Aviv. He called the meetings “constructive” and hinted at an economic strategy for reviving negotiations, but he had made no breakthroughs.
Kerry returned to the Middle East in May to hold yet another round of negotiations in Jerusalem and Ramallah. After meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas, Kerry made an unannounced visit to a shawarma shop in Ramallah. Dressed in an elegantly tailored suit, he asked the owner which type of shawarma he recommended. After the owner suggested turkey, Kerry carefully ate one, trying not to splatter sauce on his red silk tie.
“Man,” Kerry said, “that is good.”
American commentators ridiculed the stop as “purposeless” and “polarizing.” Most of the Israeli coverage of Kerry’s efforts was dismissive. A senior Israeli official complained to a Haaretz columnist that Kerry acted like someone who was sent to bring the Redemption.
In late June, Kerry returned yet again, shuttling between the two sides via plane, motorcade, and Jordanian-army helicopter. Kerry held three meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas in three days, including one meeting with the Israeli prime minister that lasted six hours, until 3 a.m. On June 29, he canceled a trip to the United Arab Emirates so he could keep talking with Netanyahu and Abbas, raising expectations of a breakthrough. On June 30, he held another press conference at the Tel Aviv airport.
“We have made real progress on this trip, and I believe that with a little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach,” Kerry said. “We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably.”
Leaving behind a team of aides to continue the negotiations, Kerry flew to Brunei for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. After visiting seven countries in 11 days and traveling 27,000 miles, Kerry landed in Washington at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, July 3. Instead of going home, Kerry went to his State Department office. Three days earlier, demonstrators had taken to the streets of Cairo to call for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who had become Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Egypt’s generals had issued an ultimatum to Morsi: make concessions to the opposition, or be removed from power.
On the plane and in his office, Kerry made repeated calls to Egyptian officials and urged calm. He also spoke several times with the American ambassador in Cairo. At roughly 10 a.m., he flew to Nantucket to spend Independence Day with his family. After arriving, Kerry made more calls and participated in a National Security Council meeting from his home by secure telephone. He then took his 1-year-old grandson for a 30-minute sail on his 76-foot yacht, the Isabel. After Kerry returned to shore, Egypt’s top military officer announced on state television that the army had seized power. Kerry made more calls to Egypt.
As news of the coup spread, a producer from CBS This Morning tweeted that Kerry had been on his yacht that day, and included a photo of an empty Isabel moored to a dock. The tweet went viral.
After being asked by a reporter whether Kerry had participated in a National Security Council meeting from his boat, Psaki e-mailed an aide on Nantucket. In an “unintentional miscommunication,” Psaki misread the reply and thought it said that Kerry had not gone sailing. Psaki told reporters that the CBS tweet was “completely inaccurate.” Two days later, CBS sent Psaki photos it had obtained of Kerry on the yacht in a light-blue bathing suit and a gray golf shirt. Psaki reread the aide’s e-mail, then issued a retraction and said that Kerry had “briefly” been on his yacht but had spent the rest of the day working. “As soon as accurate information was known, we clarified,” she later told me. The National Republican Senatorial Committee promptly released an updated version of the Kerry-the-windsurfing-flip-flopper TV ad from the presidential campaign in 2004. “While a military coup broke out in Egypt, where was Secretary of State John Kerry?” the announcer asked. “At first, he said he wasn’t on his yacht in Nantucket. But then, when asked again, he said he was.”
Compounding an ill-fated holiday weekend, Kerry’s 74-year-old wife, Teresa, suffered a seizure on Sunday, July 7, and was flown from Nantucket to Boston, where she was hospitalized. Her condition stabilized, but doctors struggled to identify the cause of the seizure.
Five months into the job, Kerry was off to an ominous start. His wife was in the hospital. Syria was convulsing. Progress toward Israeli-Palestinian talks was stalled. Egypt was burning. And Republican attack ads were making it appear as though the secretary of state had spent the weekend yachting.
Kerry pressed on. In mid-July, once his wife’s condition had stabilized and she was convalescing in a rehabilitation facility, he set out yet again for the Middle East. This time, Kerry’s aides told those of us traveling with him to expect no major announcements. Kerry seemed poised to join the long list of failed Israeli-Palestinian mediators.
Kerry arrived in Amman on Tuesday, July 16, had dinner with Abbas the next evening—and then hit a brick wall. On July 18, the Palestinians’ executive committee rejected Israel’s latest offer to resume direct talks. Netanyahu had not met any of Abbas’s preconditions.
The next morning, as reporters prepared to declare his effort a failure, the secretary of state gathered his staff in his hotel room in Amman. One aide suggested a face-saving way to keep the process alive without a formal resumption of talks: hosting a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Kerry declined. “We’re not playing games or wasting time,” Kerry said, according to the aide. “The only thing I’m interested in is a serious negotiation that can lead to a final-status agreement.”
Holing up in his hotel room, Kerry repeatedly called Netanyahu and Abbas. In the late afternoon, the press was told Kerry would make one last helicopter flight to Ramallah before heading home. Kerry flew to Ramallah, met with Abbas for 30 minutes, and flew back to Amman, where his plane to the U.S. was waiting. Kerry’s staff refused to comment on what had happened in Ramallah, but said that he would make a statement in an airport conference hall.
Just after 8 p.m. local time, Kerry strode into the room, ran his hand through his hair, and stepped to the microphone.
“On behalf of President Obama, I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Kerry said, calmly and deliberately. “This is a significant and welcome step forward.” He declined to take questions.
None of the dozen reporters sitting in the room knew what to think. Kerry had announced “an agreement that establishes a basis” for talks, not a resumption of talks. Was he stretching the truth?
During the flight home, Kerry donned jeans, his orange hoodie, and a pair of blue-and-yellow running socks. Padding up and down the aisle, he thanked his staff and sipped a Sam Adams. Though he downplayed expectations that a final peace agreement would be reached, he was emphatic that a deal had been struck to resume negotiations.
Nine days later, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of the 104 Palestinian prisoners. The next day, Israeli and Palestinian officials arrived in Washington to begin peace talks.