by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
Democratic Senator John Kerry is not going to have any problems filling the shoes of his predecessors in his new capacity as secretary of state. As the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he has gained expert knowledge on the U.S.'s ties with other countries, making him a natural for the job.
Kerry will be ready from the first day, almost to the point that he could forgo all the briefings and preparations that are designed to help a new secretary of state settle in to the office on the seventh floor of the State Department. Kerry's confirmation by the Senate floor, and before that by the committee he heads, is virtually a done deal.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government might prefer another successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it is quite evident from Kerry's voting record that he has never missed an opportunity to support legislation favorable to Israel. It should be pointed out that in the current atmosphere, in which the Obama administration is stepping up its rhetoric to express its displeasure with the planned construction beyond the Green Line, Kerry might go even further in condemning the Netanyahu government on that front. At least one well-connected source has communicated such an assessment.
Kerry supports Israel and its right to defend itself. He believes its borders should be based on the 1949 armistice lines, with some tweaks. U.S. policy on settlements has been consistent for some time; it is the rhetoric that keeps changing, and the criticism could become even more intense on Kerry's watch.
Something else to keep in mind is Kerry's courting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, before the latter became embroiled in a bloody civil war. Kerry logged many hours with Assad in his frequent visits to Damascus, making sure to shower praise on him. He called him "very generous," and touted the important role Syria played in the region. Some were bothered that the Kerry had become a regular at Assad's palace, and accused him of cozying up to the Syrian leader. But now Assad is at his low point, his ruthless, bloody character clearly on display.
There is no disagreement between Kerry and President Barack Obama when it comes to Iran. Just like the president, Kerry prefers to exhaust the sanctions option. Taking out Iran's nuclear installations is much lower on his list of priorities. Kerry is categorically opposed to a nuclear Iran, but he would rather take diplomatic steps before approving any military campaign, an option which will always be "on the table."
If Obama's likely pick for defense secretary, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, is confirmed by the Senate, Obama will have appointed two senior officials who see no urgent need to launch missiles against Iranian nuclear sites. While Obama has yet to formally announce his selection for the Pentagon chief, the general consensus is that Hagel is his first choice.
Will Obama rethink Hagel's nomination? Has the recent criticism over Hagel's views changed anything? We have no way of telling.
The selection of Kerry, a Catholic with Jewish roots, who has often been dispatched to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other hot spots around the globe on behalf of the president, was the first staffing decision for Obama's new cabinet. This was an impressive choice, but not surprising.
While Kerry is not a member of Obama's inner circle, the president has not forgotten the support he received from the senator when he sought the presidency, the same office Kerry tried but failed to capture in 2004 as the Democratic nominee (he lost to incumbent President George W. Bush).
If Netanyahu wins re-election in the Jan. 22 Knesset election, he will get an earful from the new secretary of state when it comes to construction beyond the Green Line.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
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