Watching John Kerry deliver his indictment of Israel’s settlement enterprise at the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, on Sunday, my strongest feeling was one of sorrow — sorrow for him, but mainly for us, at the wasted time and the wrongheaded approach that doomed the indefatigable, well-intentioned secretary of state’s approach to peacemaking.
Kerry calculated that he has spent 130 hours in formal discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his near four years as secretary of state, and visited Israel a staggering 40-plus times.
And yet for all that time and effort, as his valedictory jeremiad again made plain, he never internalized why he was unable to clear the obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And in the one key area where Sunday’s presentation showed a belated appreciation of where he had gone wrong, clarity has arrived long after the damage was done.
The first, foundational mistake was to believe, like a long line of global statespeople before him, that he could succeed where others had failed in trying to strong-arm the two sides into an accord on a rapid timetable, when it is tragically and undeniably obvious that the deadline-based approach cannot work.
Many, perhaps most, Israelis recognize an imperative to separate from the Palestinians in order to maintain a state that is both Jewish and democratic. But In today’s treacherous Middle East, they need more persuasion than ever that relinquishing territory will bring guaranteed tranquility, rather than escalated terrorism and new efforts to paralyze, and ultimately destroy, the country.
The lesson that Kerry refused to learn, but that his successors would be wise to, is that you cannot broker peace when the people on one side of the negotiating table do not so much as acknowledge the right of the people on the other side to be there
While Kerry and President Barack Obama assured Israelis they could afford to take the risk of territorial compromise, we have watched countries all around us descend into chaos, and seen every unsavory terror group you can name, and some you can’t, gain footholds in the neighborhood — from Syria, to Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Egypt. We have watched Iran grow emboldened and richer, thanks to a lousy accord that did not fully dismantle its rogue nuclear program. We saw Hezbollah fill the vacuum when we left southern Lebanon. We watched Hamas take over when we left Gaza, and we have since endured rocket fire and intermittent conflict as the reward for our withdrawal, even as we have been battered internationally for fighting back. We have witnessed Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank Palestinian hierarchy encourage hostility to Israel, lie about our plans for the Temple Mount, and rewrite the previous Muslim narrative that acknowledged the historicity of Jerusalem’s Jewish temples in favor of a revisionist creed that denies all Jewish connection to the holy city and thus delegitimates Israel’s very presence.
The lesson that Kerry refused to learn, but that his successors would be wise to, is that you cannot broker peace when the people on one side of the negotiating table do not so much as acknowledge the right of the people on the other side to be there. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to create a climate in which an accommodation might one day be possible, you have to work bottom up as well as top down, and promote education — via social media, spiritual leadership, schools and political leadership — that provides an honest narrative, encourages moderation, and marginalizes extremism. More succinctly still, when the Palestinians’ schools start teaching the Jews’ holy land history as well as their own, you might legitimately feel the beginnings of optimism about peacemaking.
Kerry, and his president, compounded that foundational error by continually underestimating Israel’s security concerns. At its narrowest point, Israel is nine miles wide. It is extremely strong and — thanks in no small part to the Obama administration — it maintains its qualitative military edge. But assuring Israel that it can dare to relinquish substantial parts of the West Bank by talking up sophisticated fencing in the Jordan Valley, or detailing provisions by which Israeli troops can be rapidly deployed to West Bank trouble spots at times of crisis, is inadequate. Over the decades, we have endured conventional war, a strategic onslaught of suicide bombings, car-rammings, stabbings and rocket attacks. And the only reason we’re not in the midst of a far more crippling terror war right now is that Israel’s security forces maintain freedom of movement throughout the West Bank. They have thus been able to prevent the reconstruction of the network of terrorism — the bomb factories and the training facilities that enabled Hamas and Fatah cells to terrorize Israel on a daily basis a decade and a half ago, after we had left the major West Bank cities under the Oslo accords.
This is not to say that Israel can never compromise its military freedom of access. But it certainly can’t, and won’t, until that previous necessity is met, and the Palestinians have credibly turned toward genuine coexistence.
Self-complicating his impossible mission still further, Kerry served in an administration that did not radiate the strength and purpose that Israel needs from its key ally in order to contemplate territorial concessions.
The Obama administration allowed Hosni Mubarak to fall in Egypt, and has not strongly backed the current Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, in his efforts to resist another descent into Muslim extremism and to encourage Islam’s clerical authorities to speak out against the death-cultists. The US administration stayed away when protesters attempted to oust the ayatollahs of Iran, and it entrenched their oppressive regime with the nuclear deal. It failed to intervene effectively in Syria, even after President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s own red line and started gassing the Syrian people — and thus signaled to the pitiable people of Syria that nobody was going to save them, prompted millions more to flee, intensified Europe’s refugee crisis, and in turn boosted the outraged European right.
As the US administration held back, others moved to fill the vacuum — including Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For the confidence to make peace, Israel needs to see a strong, committed America in the Middle East, working to uphold the freedoms it emblemizes, partnering Israel in the battle against Islamic extremism. Not an America hesitant or absent.
To judge by Kerry’s bitter summation on Sunday, all those fundamental errors still seem to have gone unrecognized. Where he did appear to have just possibly internalized a major misstep, however, was when it comes to the settlement enterprise. For the first time that I can remember, the secretary publicly highlighted what he said were the 90,000 Jews who now live in settlements on the far side of the security barrier that Israel built to stop the suicide-bomber onslaught in the early years of this century. Twenty thousand of them, he said, had moved there since President Obama took office. He called that barrier an Israeli “security line,” publicly implying, to my mind at least, a greater sympathy for those Israelis living to the west of that line, in the settlement blocs and in Jerusalem’s post-1967 neighborhoods.
The failure to draw a distinction between new housing in, say, Jerusalem’s Gilo and in an isolated settlement outpost deep inside the West Bank, has been a hallmark of the Obama administration. Every new planned home over the pre-1967 lines — whether in an area Israel would never contemplate relinquishing, or in an area Israel cannot anticipate retaining if it ever wishes to separate from the Palestinians — was routinely castigated by the administration as a crime of equal gravity, discrediting the criticism in the eyes of the Israeli mainstream, and by extension discrediting the administration too. The focus should always have been on the outlying settlements, on the building that entangles Israel self-defeatingly deeper among the Palestinians, on helping save the Jewish state from its short-sighted Greater Israel ideologues.
In today’s Middle East, in the dangerous climate in which it fell to Kerry to attempt diplomacy, brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians was always going to be a long-term mission, rather than a quick fix. Kerry never accepted this, and therefore never actually began that mission. But even where he and the president rightly recognized and stressed the imperative to keep the eventual option of a two-state solution open, his administration undermined that goal by failing to distinguish between settlements in areas that Israel would need to relinquish and those in areas Israel will seek to maintain. Ironically, coming as Israel advances untenable legislation seeking to retroactively “legalize” dozens of outposts on the far side of that “security line,” realization might now have dawned upon Kerry, many years too late.