Many Israelis, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dismissed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s lengthy speech Wednesday about his vision for Middle East peace as a flawed and failed effort to land a parting shot at Israel.
They pointed out that Kerry droned on disproportionately about Israeli settlements while minimizing Palestinian terrorism, incitement and glorification of violence. They wondered why he dedicated his last major speech to an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal while the rest of the Middle East is in utter turmoil, with hundreds of thousands butchered in Syria.
Some noted that Kerry delivered his speech, moreover, less than a month before a new administration with a very different worldview is set to be sworn in, and asserted that all his efforts to establish a framework for future negotiations are therefore completely meaningless. (Bill Clinton in 2000, it might be pointed out, also issued his parameters merely three weeks before he was replaced by a new president from the other side of the aisle, but Clinton had been deeply engaged in a substantive effort at peacemaking until the very end of his presidency, while Kerry’s bid fora deal collapsed in 2014.)
Critics also found fault with Kerry’s policy recommendations, with some rejecting his proposals as unrealistic or dangerous and others lamenting that the speech offered no new creative solutions to protracted problems.
It is true that Kerry’s six “principles” were not very innovative. In their initial reactions to the speech, both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to give an inch, clinging to their respective positions and making plain their unwilling to make any compromises to please the secretary of state.
The “Kerry Parameters,” as they might become known one day, do not attempt to prejudge or impose any outcome but are merely meant as a “possible basis for serious negotiations when the parties are ready,” he asserted.
“We all understand that the final status agreement can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties,” he declared. “We cannot impose the peace.”
Kerry also promised that his administration would not dictate terms for a peace agreement at the UN Security Council or prematurely recognize a Palestinian state in the final few weeks it has left in office.
But Netanyahu took no comfort in Kerry’s pledge not to seek further UN action against Israel. As opposed to the many Israeli pundits who dismissed Kerry’s outline as pointless posturing — one television commentator called it simply a “poof,” a reference to a term used by Kerry in a 2014 interview to indicate the end of his nine-month effort to broker peace earlier that year — Netanyahu is still publicly worrying about the prospect of this speech taking on a life its own and being turned into a generally accepted framework for future negotiations.
These parameters, the prime minister fears, could be adopted by the upcoming international peace conference in Paris, set for January 15, and then France, say, or Sweden — no friend of Israel, Netanyahu noted in a post-Kery speech announcement — might propose a resolution based on it at the Security Council.
As last week’s abstention on Resolution 2334 showed, the current administration cannot be trusted to protect Israel at the UN, Netanyahu said in his bitter response to Kerry’s speech. “And the United States could say, well, we can’t vote against our own policy, we’ve just enunciated it.”
It is therefore worthwhile to take a closer look at Kerry’s six principles and examine how they differ from the Clinton parameters — which 16 years ago both Israelis and Palestinians accepted, albeit with reservations — and what the two sides make of them today.
Principle one: Borders
Kerry calls for “secure and recognized international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine, negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed equivalent swaps.”
This has been the international community’s preferred formula for decades, though Kerry was less specific than Clinton about the size of the swaps (Clinton said 94-96% of the West Bank’s territory would become part of the Palestinian state).
Abbas, in his response to Kerry’s speech, insisted on an “independent State of Palestine… on the 1967 border,” but he has publicly indicated a readiness to limited territorial exchanges to allow Israel to retain large settlement blocs.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has never publicly agreed to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines. (However, the never-published framework agreement, negotiated toward the end of Kerry’s 2013-14 failed peace talks, reportedly included the “67 lines plus swaps” formula, and Netanyahu agreed to it, with reservations.)
Netanyahu has accepted, in principle, a two-state solution, but adamantly refuses to talk about where he would draw the border between Israel and a future Palestine. Publicly recognizing the Green Line as the basis for talks would cost him politically, with right-wingers even in his own party likely to decry him as a “leftist” — one of the worst epithets an Israeli politician can be called in recent years.
Principle two: Jewish state recognition
Citing the 1947 UN partition plan, Kerry endorsed Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize the principle of two states for two peoples — “one Jewish and one Arab, with mutual recognition and full equal rights for all their respective citizens.”
Washington has long recognized Israel as a Jewish state, though the demand the Palestinian extend that same recognition — one of Netanyahu’s two key conditions for any peace deal — does not appear in the Clinton parameters. Kerry’s nod to Netanyahu’s recognition requirement is a veritable success for the prime minister, though he gave the secretary no credit for it.
On the contrary, Netanyahu on Wednesday lambasted Kerry for failing to realize that the “persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state remains the core of the conflict.” If the world truly wanted to promote peace, it should move to eradicate the Palestinians’ rejection of Israel as a Jewish state, he exclaimed, “and I can only express my regret and say that it’s a shame that Secretary Kerry does not see this simple truth.”
The Palestinians have so far adamantly refused to acquiesce to Netanyahu’s demand, and there are no indications that Kerry’s speech will change that. The PA foreign minister rushed to rule out any such recognition on Wednesday night.
But in one of the speech’s more interesting passages, Kerry said he is “absolutely convinced that many others are now prepared to accept it as well.” His surprising assessment is based on “recent conversations,” he said, though it was unclear to whom he was referring. Besides the US, Canada and Germany, few states have expressed much sympathy for Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be defined along what they consider religious lines.
“We also know that there are some 1.7 million Arab citizens who call Israel their home and must now and always be able to live as equal citizens, which makes this a difficult issue for Palestinians and others in the Arab world,” Kerry acknowledged. To sweeten the pill, he suggested that Israel reaffirm its commitment to uphold “full equal rights” for all its citizens. But this is unlikely to satisfyingly allay the Palestinians’ fear that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state could undermine Muslims and Christians living there.
Principle three: Refugees
Without going into too much detail, Kerry called for a “just, agreed, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.” Israel would have to acknowledge the refugees’ suffering and the international community would pay compensation and help them find “permanent homes… or other measures necessary for a comprehensive resolution consistent with two states for two peoples.”
Any solution to the refugee question “must be consistent with two states for two peoples and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel,” he added. While he did not spell it out, the implication is that most refugees will not be allowed to return to Israel proper but will have to settle in the future state of Palestine or a third country. This is very similar to the Clinton parameters.
Israel could live with such an arrangement, and even though the Palestinians officially insist on what they call “the right of return,” Abbas is on the record as saying that he does not want to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees.
Principle four: Jerusalem
Perhaps surprisingly, Kerry opposed a division of Jerusalem, proposing instead to have the city be declared “the internationally recognized capital of the two states.”
“Most acknowledge that Jerusalem should not be divided again like it was [before] 1967, and we believe that,” he said. “At the same time, there is broad recognition that there will be no peace agreement without reconciling the basic aspirations of both sides to have capitals there.”
He provided less specifics than Clinton, who proposed that “Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli,” and promised Israeli control over the Western Wall and Palestinian control over the rest of the Temple Mount.
The status of Jerusalem has always been the trickiest of all the final-status issues, and Kerry’s speech did nothing to bring a resolution closer.
Principle five: Security
In calling for a future Palestinian state to be “non-militarized,” Kerry supported Netanyahu’s second key demand, after the Jewish state recognition. “Everyone understands that no Israeli government can ever accept an agreement that does not satisfy its security needs or that risks creating an enduring security threat like Gaza transferred to the West Bank,” Kerry said. “And Israel must be able to defend itself effectively, including against terrorism and other regional threats.”
On the other hand, he acknowledged that the Palestinians demand “a sovereign state” and “need to know that the military occupation itself will really end after an agreed transitional process.”
This description is close to the Clinton parameters. The question of security has long been considered the most easy to resolve, though the last rounds of negotiations, under Kerry, revealed deep disagreements between Abbas and Netanyahu regarding what troops would be stationed where and for how long. The prime minister rejects any arrangement that would not include a permanent Israeli military presence in the West Bank, a position anathema to the Palestinians.
Principle six: End of all claims
Once all the aforementioned obstacles have been overcome, both sides will formally end the conflict and all outstanding claims, “enabling normalized relations and enhanced regional security for all as envisaged by the Arab Peace Initiative,” Kerry said.
For Israel, this would mean full diplomatic relations with the entire Islamic world. For the larger Middle East, it could be “the greatest moment of potential transformation” since 1948, Kerry proclaimed.
Nobody argues with the assertion that a final peace deal would be a fantastic development for the parties and for the region, but, as Kerry himself admitted after laying out his vision, “we all know that a speech alone won’t produce peace.”