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Kerry's Visit Leaves Israelis Indifferent

Mazal Mualem wonders why the optimism left by President Barack Obama turned into indifference toward his secretary of state.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to U.S. foreign service workers during his visit to the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem April 8, 2013. REUTERS/Paul J. Richards/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXYDPV

The three-day visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Israel, which ended on Tuesday, April 4, was covered by the Israeli media with indifference bordering on disregard, especially after the great optimism left behind by President Barack Obama at the end of his visit, two and a half weeks earlier.

Kerry’s two meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which lasted a total of seven hours, as well as his meeting with President Shimon Peres, merited minor coverage relative to such an event. Reports of the meetings were relegated to marginal sections of the news broadcasts.

The public agenda was focused at the time on internal economic and social issues. The public and the media, as well as the political arena, were far busier with the intention of the new minister of education Shay Piron to limit the scope of high school matriculation exams. Another central issue was the storm created by treasury officials, who threatened the country’s students with a tuition hike without informing the new Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, of their intent. Lapid’s reprimand to those officials made it to the top of the primetime Channel 2 evening news show on the last day of Kerry’s visit, whereas the report of Kerry’s second meeting with Netanyahu was sixth on the lineup. Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali Bennett also managed to evoke much more interest than Kerry, making it to the front pages with his instruction to reduce the price of bread. Even the call by former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman for members of Knesset to take a 10% pay cut took up significantly more space than the content of the meetings in Israel with one of the most important people in the US administration.

We have yet to mention that politicians on the left and the right ignored the visit and preferred to comment on internal matters and mostly to attack Lapid. Where were the militant deputy ministers from the extreme right wing of the Likud — Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotoveli and Ze’ev Elkin — who used to pounce on every visit by a US secretary of state in order to declare their opposition to any diplomatic concessions? They, too, adhered to the economic-social agenda and opted for quiet on the home front.

How is it that Israelis remained so indifferent, only a short time after the resounding visit of US President Barack Obama, who captured their hearts, dominated the public discourse and created an optimistic atmosphere for the renewal of the diplomatic process? Kerry was supposed to ride the waves of his president’s successful visit to Israel.

There are two reasons for this:

One, Kerry’s visit, despite its importance, did not result in a diplomatic breakthrough other than reports of a good atmosphere, American commitment to blocking Iran’s nuclear weapons program and friendly photos with Netanyahu. Kerry also lacks the president’s charisma and he is relatively unknown to most Israelis, who were far more interested in his predecessor Hilary Clinton, mostly because of her kinship to her husband, of whom Israelis are very fond.

Two, the things Kerry said were general and referred to a lengthy process and cautious optimism. Thus, Danon, Hotoveli and the other ideologically minded members of the Likud, who were treated to appointments as deputy ministers after the elections, had no reason to confront the prime minister. As long as there is no declared plan to make concessions, why pick a fight? So that if Netanyahu sought to buy himself some internal peace within his party with these appointments, it is already clear that he got a pretty good deal.

Although Likud Knesset members suspect that the prime minister is clandestinely planning a diplomatic move, as long as he manages to maintain ambiguity, they prefer not to dig into his intentions and to focus on the price of bread, cottage cheese and other matters that the social protest of the summer of 2011 pushed to the top of the public agenda.

All of the above also undoubtedly has to do with the prolonged fatigue and disappointment of the Israeli public with anything related to the conflict with the Palestinians. Opinion polls in recent years point to the fact that Israelis are skeptical about the prospects of achieving peace, despite their support of the two-state idea. Negotiations with the Palestinians, which in the past stirred such excitement and constituted the main topic of public and political discourse, have long since become oppressive and uninteresting.

Given this public sentiment, it appears that only a dramatic breakthrough in diplomatic contacts will push John Kerry’s Middle East travels to the top of the news.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service, where she was assigned to the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. After her studies, she worked for the second leading Israeli daily Maariv. In 1998, she joined Haaretz, covering local governance, and later she was appointed chief political analyst of the paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst. 

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