WASHINGTON — In his first speech to an American Jewish organization since becoming secretary of state, John Kerry explained Monday why he’s dedicated so much of his first few months in office to breathing new life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he admittedly described as “hardly a process at all.”
“Ma nishtana (what is different) this time?” he asked in Hebrew, riffing on the first of the four questions asked at a traditional Passover Seder.
His answer: “We are running out of time and possibilities.”
The secretary said the US and Israel “may not get another chance at peace” and warned that the current Palestinian leadership won’t be around forever, especially if the West Bank economy “implodes or if the Palestinian security force fails.”
“What would replace them?” he asked. “The status quo is simply not sustainable. A stalemate today will not remain so tomorrow…Are we prepared to live with permanent conflict?”
‘I still believe peace is achievable and, more than ever, it’s worth fighting for’
Ticking off previous peace efforts – Oslo, Taba, Wye, Annapolis, etc – Kerry acknowledged the deep skepticism and cynicism in getting peace negotiations back on track.
“I still believe peace is achievable and, more than ever, it’s worth fighting for,” he said. The secretary urged the American Jewish community to rededicate itself to the fight for a negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution.
“The best way to assure Israel’s future is an agreement resulting in two states for two people, each able to fulfill their national aspirations in a homeland of their own,” he said, adding that Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state cannot be maintained in a one-state scenario.
Since taking office on February 1, Kerry has made four trips to Israel, more than any other country. Earlier Monday, his office announced a fifth trip to the Jewish state scheduled for next week.
Even though he said the conflict is “not the cause of problems in the Middle East, but rather an excuse for autocrats to shift blame away from themselves,” he said a lasting peace agreement could have far-reaching consequences that benefit Israel.
Secretary Kerry delivered his remarks at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum.
If some of the secretary’s talk was tough love for an American pro-Israel audience, it was couched in personal anecdotes about Kerry’s long association with Israel and the American Jewish community.
Upon being introduced, Kerry was greeted by a loud round of applause and a standing ovation. He began by acknowledging the presence of Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, then paused to remember US Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday at the age of 89.
“Senator Lautenberg was a champion of Israel and the Jewish community,” he said, noting that Lautenberg was the last World War II veteran serving in the US Senate.
Kerry told the crowd about his first visit to Israel in 1986 with 15 Jewish friends from Massachusetts and described their collective yell of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ at the top of the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada. As a five-time US senator and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said he’s met every Israeli prime minister in the past 30 years and described himself as a “true friend of Israel.”
‘The US will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon’
He said President Barack Obama is equally committed to an “unshakeable” bond with the Jewish state.
In the loudest and longest applause line of the speech, Kerry earned a standing ovation when he emphatically said, “Let me say this clearly: The US will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
This year’s AJC conference brought together more than 1,500 participants from across the United States and 60 Jewish communities around the world. Other scheduled speakers include the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Greece, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
Justice Minister and chief Palestinian negotiator Livni also spoke at the conference, stressing that “time is working against those who believe a two-state solution is the only Zionist way to maintain our identity.”
“There are those who wish to postpone the decision, but doing so would be a historic mistake for anyone who calls themselves Zionists,” said Livni.