Kerry unplugged: What do diplomat’s open-mic remarks on Israel reveal?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes questions from Belgian TV at Egmont Palace in Brussels on April 24, 2013. Credit: State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes questions from Belgian TV at Egmont Palace in Brussels on April 24, 2013. Credit: State Department.

A private conversation caught on an open microphone between Secretary of State John Kerry and his aide Sunday is raising questions whether the Obama administration’s uncompromising public support for Israel’s Operation Protective Edge may not reflect its private stance.

“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Kerry told his aide, appearing frustrated with Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza.

“Right,” the aide replied. “It’s escalating really significantly and just underscores the need for a cease-fire.”

“We’ve got to get over there,” Kerry told the aide, referring to the Middle East. (On Monday, Kerry flew to Cairo to begin working on a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas.)

The conversation took place before Kerry appeared on Fox News Sunday. Host Chris Wallace played a clip of the conversation for the secretary and asked:

“[W]hen you said it’s a ‘hell of a pinpoint operation,’ are you upset that the Israelis are going too far, and in fact, do you intend to go back to the Middle East tonight, sir?”

“It’s tough to have this kind of operation, and I reacted obviously in a way that anybody does with respect to young children and civilians,” Kerry answered. “But war is tough, and I said that publicly and I’ll say it again. We defend Israel’s right to do what it is doing in order to get at those tunnels.”

The exchange has been fodder for critics and supporters of administration policy.

“It seems to me that that clip shows the disparity between what the secretary says and what he believes,” said Lisa Goldman, director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation. “In other words, based on the information he is receiving from his aides, he has drawn the conclusion that Israel is not targeting its targets in Gaza with military precision, as Israel claims it is. Given the 70-80 percent civilian casualty rate, that would seem like a logical conclusion.”

Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for J Street thinks the incident has been assigned more significance than it deserves and that Kerry was just voicing a normal reaction at the thought of casualties.

“I didn’t hear anything particularly controversial. He was just expressing human emotions and expressing his desire to bring the bloodshed to an end,” Elsner said, adding that it is also important to distinguish between “civilian casualties that are caused when Hamas places its positions in extremely populated areas, and those which are caused by a clear case of error.”

But Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, didn’t buy Kerry’s explanation.

“Kerry has once again shown his true colors, lending the imprimatur of the U.S. secretary of state to the Palestinian propaganda line against Israel,” said Pollack. “He also did his own diplomatic mission real damage by revealing to the Israelis his contempt for their legitimate security concerns.”

Elliott Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush, was more discouraged by what he saw as Kerry’s inability to properly delegate within his department.

“I found it interesting that Kerry felt he just had to go out [to the Middle East] – for no real reason,” said Abrams, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. “He has a deputy who used to be assistant secretary for that region and ambassador to Jordan [Bill Burns], and it would have been wiser to send him.”

“U.S. diplomacy should not be a one-man band,” Abrams said. “Kerry seems compelled to appear, even when there isn’t much he can accomplish.”
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@dmitriyshapiro contributed to this story.

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