Visiting Israel Thursday for the first time since the interim nuclear deal with Iran led to the worst crisis in bilateral relations in recent memory, US Secretary of State John Kerry did his utmost to repair the damage and move on.
Thoroughly aware that his host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is highly critical of Washington’s latest moves in the Middle East, Kerry went beyond the usual diplomatic niceties, offering rare promises and pledges vis-a-vis Israel’s concerns and demands.
Regarding Iran, the US top diplomat couldn’t offer any concrete steps or policy statements that would satisfy Jerusalem. The interim deal with Tehran — which aims to partially freeze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief — has been signed though not sealed by the US and five other world powers (technical details must be negotiated before it takes effect), and the next round, with protracted discussions about the nitty-gritty of a final deal, is still far off.
Instead, Kerry asserted that “Israel’s security in this negotiation [with Iran] is at the top of our agenda.” Not Washington’s own interests in the region, not the fate of the nonproliferation regime, but Israel’s security.
“The United States will do everything in our power to make certain that Iran’s nuclear program — a program of weaponization possibilities — is terminated,” Kerry pledged. Attempting to assuage widespread fears that the temporary deal hatched last month in Geneva would become a permanent situation, Kerry said Jerusalem and Washington “agree on what the goal of the final status agreement ought to be.”
The US administration’s idea of an endgame remains shrouded in mystery. But Israel’s demands are clear: Iran must not be left with any enriched uranium and needs to dismantle all facilities that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
While Kerry probably did not bring with him a concrete proposal for the upcoming talks with Iran, he and his team did present Netanyahu and his advisers with a scheme on security arrangements in a future peace deal with the Palestinians. Indeed, in the first leg of his current visit to the region, intended mainly to revive the stalling Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Kerry tried to address two of Netanyahu’s key concerns thought by Washington to be impeding progress in the talks: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and ironclad security arrangements.
Since Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority four months ago, he has reiterated numerous times that these two conditions need to be met for him to sign any agreement.
“In order for there to be peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors, they must recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of its own in its homeland,” he said at a cabinet meeting last month. “The second foundation is the security that can defend the peace and will defend the Jewish state in case the peace frays.” These security arrangements “will certainly include many things,” he said, “but first and foremost, the security border of the State of Israel will remain along the Jordan River.”
Speaking at a press conference after his meeting with Netanyahu Thursday morning at the Prime Minister’s Office, Kerry went out of his way to please his host. “I join with President [Barack] Obama in expressing to the people of Israel our deep, deep commitment to the security of Israel and to the need to find a peace that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, that recognizes Israel as a country that can defend itself, by itself,” Kerry said. “That is an important principle with which the prime minister and the president and I are in agreement.”
Kerry’s quasi endorsement of Netanyahu’s demand for Israel to be recognized by the Palestinians as a Jewish state does not signify a reversal on US policy. Back in March, Obama had said in Jerusalem that the “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.” But still, it’s music to Netanyahu’s ears every time he hears it, and Kerry knew exactly what to say to try to get back on “my friend Bibi’s” good side.
More concretely, Kerry also had a detailed plan for security arrangements in a future peace deal in his suitcase. Washington is keenly aware of Israel’s worries, Kerry took great pains in explaining. “I understand the challenges to security that Israel faces. I understand it very well,” he said, mentioning that he had visited the rocket-stricken towns in Israel’s north and south, and understands their suffering. To make sure Israel can go ahead and negotiate in earnest with the Palestinians, Gen. John Allen, a former US commander in Afghanistan, “provided the prime minister and his military leadership with some thoughts” about how to guarantee Israel’s safety, he said.
One reason the peace talks have been stalling in recent weeks, analysts surmise, is Netanyahu’s reluctance to produce a map of how he imagines the two future states would look, mainly because he is not willing to discuss borders before his security concerns are allayed. General Allen’s plan can be understood as an effort to show Jerusalem that while the US understands Israel’s legitimate worries, there are ways to address them.
Officials have yet to confirm details of the American proposal. According to Haaretz, it integrates “physical security arrangements” in the West Bank “with American security guarantees for Israel and proposed American military aid to the Israel Defense Forces.”
Netanyahu was probably not impressed by the American initiative. He maintains that Israel needs to keep a security presence in the Jordan Valley, a demand the Palestinians resolutely reject. “Israel is ready for a historic peace, and it’s a peace based on two states for two peoples,” the prime minister said at Thursday’s joint press conference with Kerry, after he had seen Allen’s draft. “It’s a peace that Israel can and must be able to defend by itself with our own forces against any foreseeable threat.”
Danon: ‘We will not allow Kerry to pressure us into another bad deal. We will never compromise on our security, even if it means saying no to our closest ally’
And even in the unlikely scenario that Netanyahu would be inclined to work with the US proposal, the right flank of his Likud party, which is opposed to a Palestinian state on ideological grounds, doubtless has profound reservations about Allen’s ideas.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon rejected the American proposal even before Kerry and Netanyahu emerged from their meeting, because it allegedly includes the “possibility of Palestinian representatives at international border crossings.”
“Israel will not outsource its basic security needs to the Palestinians,” Danon said in a statement. “After the debacle in Geneva [where the interim deal with Iran was signed], we will not allow Secretary Kerry to pressure us into another bad deal… We will never compromise on our security, even if it means saying no to our closest ally.”
Kerry put his all into burying the hatchet with Netanyahu and washing away the bad blood between Jerusalem and Washington, which started with an aggressive television interview last month and escalated in the last two weeks with harsh statements back and forth over the Iran deal. On Thursday, Netanyahu, too, tried to move on, calling Kerry a “welcome friend” and refraining from any open criticism (such as calling the Geneva agreement “a historic mistake.”) But a few nice words, even well-chosen ones, will not be enough to obscure the deep divisions that currently fester between Washington and Jerusalem, on both the Palestinians and Iran.