By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On the eve of US Secretary of State’s peace speech on December 28, US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted; “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S. but…not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
It wasn’t that fast, because Kerry felt comfortable droning on for 70 minutes. Here are a few takeaway from the speech.
It was way too long
Forty-three minutes into this speech I was already bored. It felt like it was on a loop, like he was going back to the beginning. Kerry’s speech had many of the elements of a typical John Kerry or Barack Obama speech, it tried to provide something for both sides and included personal anecdotes. It’s almost like these speeches are written by a machine. The language is always hollow, general and mundane.
It felt like a prosecuting attorney giving a closing argument
When John Kerry began to give details about Israel’s actions in the West Bank, the number of Jewish communities, the number of “settlers,” the number of new homes, the percent of it taken by Israel, it felt like he was trying to prove to somehow just how correct he and the US administration are. But why so much detail? Why wait until just weeks before a new administration to give such a speech. George Mitchell, a former US Senator from Maine who has played a role in the peace process, speaking to CNN, said that it would basically be best for Israel to get this United Nations Security Council Resolution behind it. He intimated that it would be best if Israel just went back to working with its “natural allies” such as the UK and New Zealand, which had supported the resolution. In a sense he was saying that the speech doesn’t matter and neither does the UN. “Kerry’s speech was a robust defense of the two state solution.”
So Kerry was defending the need for two states. But who is he selling his case to? The world agrees that two states is the desired outcome. Supposedly most Palestinians and Israelis also support two states. So, case closed?
Even CNN thought that “going out of office on Israeli settlements,” was a strange thing for the Obama administration when Syria was in ruins and Yemen at war. In short, Washington insiders and commentators all think Kerry’s speech and the Obama administrations sudden focus on this after 8 years of failure is strange. Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat, said that the new administration would likely walk away from all of the speech’s key point.
So, case open.
We’ve heard this before
Kerry’s speech began by discussing a “just and lasting peace,” which is a line that appears in the UN resolutions often. It also appears in the Oslo Accords. Kerry was coming as a friend but he spoke like a lover who was trying to explain his actions to his unhappy partner. He couldn’t “stand idly by” and he would be “derelict in duty” by not saying anything. But he and the administration had stood idly by for 8 years basically after some fleeting efforts. “The two state solution is in serious jeopardy.” This is the same language used by Obama in Jerusalem in 2013. Years ago articles were already saying that “one state” was the Obama legacy. In 2015 the US State Department was already talking about the “one state” risk.
When Kerry speaks about “seemingly endless occupation” and “cementing one state reality that most people do not want,” he’s using talking points that go back decades.
“We know what is best for Israel”
One of the talking points of Kerry and Obama has often been that they have Israel’s best interests at heart. “We are trying to preserve a Jewish state,” Kerry said. He looked back to 19th century Zionism and the dreams of a Jewish state. Obama said in May 2015: “I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.”
“We give you money, so do what we say”
Kerry raised the issue of military aid to Israel, claiming that this US administration had been the best friend of Israel. He referenced the $38 billion financing for Israel. He didn’t mention the two F-35s that just landed in Israel, but he might as well have. He spoke here like a father who gives presents to his kid and expects the kid to behave. “More than half of entire global military financing goes to Israel,” Kerry claimed. In fact that money all goes back to the US defense industry, so it’s financing for America, but yes, it does end up in Israel to.
There is something paternalistic in this discussion about Israel, something a bit orientalism and “white man’s burden” combined. “We know what is best,” is the message, we give you money, now do what we say.
Boredom and stories
Kerry’s speech included around 40 minutes of details that could have been put out in a press release. It’s nice he’s been to Masada and Sderot and other places. It’s nice that he cares about the 1.8 million people of Gaza. He’s angry that Palestinian websites glorify killing Israelis. But most of this was just wasted effort at the end of 8 years, maybe good for the memoirs, but without practical steps to be taken, what’s the point. The US did nothing for Gaza for 8 years, so what is the plan now? Well, there is no plan.
Settlements are the problem
John Kerry’s strongest words regarded Israel’s Jewish communities built outside Jerusalem and over the 1967 Green Line. He said that 270,000 Jews had moved to these communities since 1993. 20-30,000 had moved there in the last 8 years. “More and more” were moving to “Palestinian areas.” He claimed the current map of Palestinian Authority areas, where they have some autonomy, was like “Swiss cheese.” Israel was “chipping away” at Palestinian statehood. In 2009 Obama said in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Kerry was saying the same thing, but eight years later.
John Kerry’s reference to “separate but equal” and “segregation” and “civil rights” were obvious nods to the US history of civil rights struggles. In the 1950s and 1960s when Kerry was in his twenties, the US went through an epic battle to remove segregation from the Old South. Kerry is from the northeast, but his knowledge of this era was bolstered by his anti-Vietnam activism after his military service. He speaks about American values and Israel’s democracy and his central message here is that Israel is going down the road to being a non-democratic, but Jewish, state. Of course if Kerry looked deeper he would realize the segregated nature of the West Bank is also internal to Israel’s education system and most communities. It reminds one of Margaret Thatcher’s comments about Israel in the 1980s when asked to compare it to Northern Ireland. She said that at least the Irish could vote, whereas Palestinians are non-citizens.
What is to be done
Kerry analyzed the patient and his prescription is unclear. He said that there was deep mistrust, and that negotiations had not progressed. Yet what do you do when nothing works? Propose a new-old plan. So Kerry put forth basically what has been put forth since the 1980s with aspects from 1967, resolution 242 and Oslo. In the Oslo Accords it said “interim self-government arrangements contained in this Agreement are an integral part of the whole peace process, that the negotiations on the permanent status, that will start as soon as possible but not later than May 4, 1996, will lead to the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and that the Interim Agreement shall settle all the issues of the interim period and that no such issues will be deferred to the agenda of the permanent status negotiations.”
Kerry basically went down the list of the same problems from 1993, in Oslo they were: “issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, specified military locations, Palestinian refugees, borders, foreign relations and Israelis.”
Kerry’s six principals: There would be borders and land swaps based on 1967 lines, 2 states, assistance for refugees, Jerusalem, security. We’ve heard this all before.
If Israel makes peace then it can help Arab states fight Iran
Kerry tried to hold a carrot in front of Israel, noting that the rise of Iran in the region posed a threat to Arab states and that there was a unique opportunity for Israel to make peace and work with its neighbors against the common Iranian threat. Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States were mentioned as partners. Iran was “destabilizing” and the Arab states were ready for a “fundamentally different relationship.”
The irony here is that Kerry was the main driver of the Iran deal. So now he has seen the light, or he was just trying to mislead Israel, or he basically speaks with two mouths, one for Iran and the great deal and another for Israel. Kerry’s failed diplomacy on Syria which I have written extensively about gives one pause here. Arab states have been informing the West for decades that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the source of the region’s problems and that not resolving it was leading to radicalism and extremism. However Osama Bin Laden’s extremism, ISIS and other Jihadist movements were let loose not by Israel and Palestine but due to other issues in Saudi Arabia, the US invasion of Iraq, Algeria’s civil war, Chechnya and Afghanistan, and most recently the Syrian conflict. Now the theory is that Israel should help these states it has commonalities with because they are fearful of extremism from Iraq and Syria and they fear Iran.
The reality is that in many ways they need Israel more than Israel needs them. Jordan and the Gulf States have serious problems and could be destabilized. It is in their interests to work with Israel and they already do, perhaps quietly in the Gulf’s case. When two states share a common enemy, even without recognition or a formal agreement, they may work together anyway. There is no evidence that the Jordanian or Egyptian peace agreement Israel has signed made Jordanians or Egyptians like Israel or Israelis or Jews anymore than prior to peace. In fact surveys show that anti-Israel views are just as robust there as in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. Anti-semitism, for instance is far less in Iran than in most of Israel’s neighbors. So what evidence is there that peace agreements have helped Israel greatly. Yes, these countries now need Israel a little bit more and Palestinians are not their priority. That may be an opening for Israel. But Kerry helped open the door to Iran, so his advice may not be the most helpful.
“We cannot do nothing”
The speech concluded with an admonition justifying its existence. “We cannot do nothing.” But that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. The administration is very cerebral but it lack in action. In Syria it did very little. It’s most robust action has been to aid Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but it has never deviated from US core policy, which supports Iraq’s Baghdad government, just as the US refuses to move its embassy to Jerusalem. It is trapped in borders from the 1920s and ideas from the 1950s and 1990s. It can’t change that because the State Department never changes. It’s like an oil tanker, it just steams along and hopes others get out of its way.
Kerry wants a legacy, he didn’t say anything revolutionary in this speech, in fact in the opposite he said that the incoming Us administration had to decide for itself. He reiterated talking points that have been said numerous times. It was obvious he was justifying the decision to abstain at the UN just days before Christmas. In this case his voice was clear: Israel didn’t listen to our advice, we told them we would do this if they didn’t change their policy, and we did it.
It’s true that Israel has tried to outlast and slow play the Obama administration. Israel has not sought to advance the peace process since the 1990s. Danny Ayalon told CNN that Israel has offered “everything” numerous times, but the reality on the ground is not “everything.” Evacuating 40 families in the tiny community Amona brings Israel to a halt, it cannot evacuate tens of thousands of people. Since the Gaza withdrawal ten years ago, Israel is unable to make major visionary steps. This is its own calculation that the status quo is preferable and can be maintained and that time is on its side. The right wing believes there shouldn’t be a Palestinian state.
But the US policy has also been to allow Palestinians to dictate the terms. Since Palestinians have to agree to the “final status” agreements on Jerusalem, as long as they keep saying “no” then the US will never move its embassy or recognize any Israeli rights to Jerusalem. So Palestinians have a real veto. They are weaker, but their view tends towards “existing is resisting” and “samud” or steadfastness.
So Israel keeps building, Palestinians are steadfast and both sides think they will win. And John Kerry has a speech to show for his legacy.