SecState Kerry Deeply Offends Ally Israel with 'Boycott' Comments; WashPost Spins, Buries on A8

February 3rd, 2014 3:10 PM

Imagine, if you will, it's the midterm election year of 2006 and President George W. Bush's secretary of state making careless remarks which seem to lend moral validity to an economic boycott of the United States's staunchest ally in the Middle East. The Washington Post would surely glom onto such an embarrassing gaffe and play it up as much as possible.

Yet when John Kerry made such remarks about the State of Israel, the Post's William Booth spun the gaffe as best he could, seemingly exasperated that Israeli statesmen were even complaining about the remarks. For their part, Booth's bosses dutifully shuffled to story to page A8 of the February 3 edition, rather than give it more prominent coverage (emphasis mine):

JERUSALEM — A chorus of Israeli politicians warned Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Sunday that they would not be bullied into a peace deal with the Palestinians by growing threats of boycott and isolation.

It didn’t seem to matter that Kerry himself wasn’t threatening the Israelis, but appeared to be worrying aloud about what the international reaction might be if U.S.-brokered negotiations to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict collapse.

No matter, umbrage was taken on all sides.

The testy tit-for-tats — which included a tart on-the-record comeback from a State Department spokeswoman — came as Kerry prepares to return to the region in coming weeks. He is expected to bring a proposal for a framework agreement that would be used by both sides to seek solutions to central issues of the conflict, such as borders for a future Palestinian state and what to do about 350,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank.

Talk of an Israeli boycott is in the mainstream because actress Scarlett Johansson resigned her post as global ambassador for the anti-poverty group Oxfam last week in order to appear in a Super Bowl commercial Sunday night for the Israeli company SodaStream, which has a factory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The U.S.-Israeli flap, between two of the closest allies in the world, began Saturday when Kerry said in Munich that allowing the peace talks to stumble would only incite Israel’s critics, who are pushing for boycotts against Israeli products and institutions in a campaign to isolate and pressure the country to end its occupation of the West Bank.

“You see, for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things,” Kerry said.

He added: “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”

It's not perfectly analogous, of course, but here's how the Washington Post reported the ire of French and German diplomats to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "old Europe" crack back in January 2003 (emphasis mine):

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who two weeks ago infuriated American veterans by saying draftees added "no value" to the U.S. military, has outraged French and German officials by labeling their countries "old Europe" in their opposition to a quick military strike on Iraq.

"The only answer is, 'Cool down,' " German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters during a visit to Turkey. He added, "We are good friends and allies."

The French finance minister, Francis Mer, said in a television interview in Paris, "I want to remind everyone that 'old Europe' has resilience and is capable of bouncing back."

Martine Aubry, a socialist former labor minister in France, said Rumsfeld's remarks "show once again a certain arrogance of the United States." And the ecology minister, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, stopped herself from commenting, saying the word she wanted to use would be too offensive for radio.

Asked in Washington on Wednesday about growing European opposition to war with Iraq, Rumsfeld replied: "You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't." He added: "I think that's old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members."

That remark, coming from a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, struck nerves in Paris and Berlin, where officials in the last week have made much of trying to revive their decades-old alliance as the "motor" driving European political and economic integration. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Wednesday attended a Paris ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of a friendship treaty that helped bring about today's European unity.

Rumsfeld's remarks summed up a sentiment long felt on both sides of the Atlantic but rarely expressed openly -- that as NATO and the European Union expand eastward, they are taking in new, more pro-American members.

The United States actively pushed last year for the invitations to join NATO that Romania and Bulgaria received at a November summit of the alliance. Many Europeans believe the motive was in part to add more pro-American voices to NATO council meetings.

And at a December summit of EU leaders, the Bush administration lobbied hard for Turkey to be admitted as a member, with last-minute telephone calls that many Europeans found offensive. Turkey was not admitted, but was given two years to meet certain legal, human rights and political criteria.

French television stations tonight were dominated by what one channel called "the quarrel" between the United States and Europe on the Iraq issue. In a statement released by the Elysee Palace, Chirac said the debate on Iraq should unfold "seriously and calmly."

Schroeder, speaking alongside Chirac before students in Berlin, won a round of applause when he reiterated Germany's position that Iraq needed to be disarmed "by peaceful means."

"That is the common position of France and Germany, and we will not be diverted from it," he said.

Meanwhile in Brussels, NATO Secretary General George Robertson played down the divergence between Washington and its European allies over the Iraq issue. Referring to NATO's postponement Wednesday of a decision on U.S. requests for indirect military assistance in the event of a war, Robertson said, "This is not some sort of bust-up." He called it "a disagreement on timing, not on substance."

That story was published on page A20 of the January 24, 2003 edition, but was followed in subsequent days by Post columnists piling on with their critiques of Bush foreign policy in the lead-up to hostilities with Iraq.