It seems increasingly unlikely, though not impossible, that the Obama administration will lend its hand to a resolution that might discomfit the Israeli government at the UN, or otherwise seek to bequeath a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry did a great deal more than discomfit the prime minister and his coalition on Sunday, however. In remarks at the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, Kerry unloaded almost four years of bitter frustration at Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues, warned that Israel is “heading to a place of danger,” and cited the settlement enterprise as the central catalyst for that potential disaster.
A different, brighter future, he indicated, was attainable for Israel. But the settlers were destroying it, he said. And his unfortunate role, he made sadly clear, had been to serve these past four years as the prophet who can see the tragedy approaching, but whose warnings go unheeded.
No, said the secretary, ceding a point to Netanyahu, who had spoken by satellite just before him, the settlements “are not the cause of the conflict.” But, Kerry repeated several times, they most certainly constitute a core “obstacle” to its solution. “Let’s not kid each other here,” he advised. “You can’t just wipe it away by saying it doesn’t have an impact. It has an impact.”
He didn’t blame Netanyahu personally for utilizing settlements with the deliberate goal of ensuring that there can be no two-state solution. But the Israeli right, Kerry said, was strategically bringing more and more Jews into the West Bank, and locating them in very specific locations, with precisely that goal — to ensure that there could be no viable Palestinian state. And Netanyahu was presiding over the process.
Twenty-thousand more Jews now live in settlements beyond the security fence than when President Barack Obama first took office, he said, dozens of illegal outposts were in the process of being legalized, and this ongoing process “narrows and narrows the capacity for peace,” he lamented.
Plainly determined to use the event, one of his last opportunities as secretary, to set out his vision and the reasons for his failure to bring it to fruition, Kerry insisted that he spoke as a friend of Israel, as a diplomat who had never sought to impose a solution, and as a strategic ally who had always respected Israel’s security needs.
The way he told it, his has been a thankless task — essentially trying to save Israel from itself, and specifically from the short-sighted, right-wing settlement-builders, the advocates of Greater Israel who will either cost Israel its Jewish majority or its democracy, or both, by gradually preventing separation from the millions of West Bank Palestinians. “Sometimes there’s a proclivity to kill the messenger,” he observed wryly.
Most of the current Israeli ministers are on record opposing Palestinian statehood, he noted unhappily. And the settlements are their tool. The ongoing settlement building is backed by the right “because they don’t want peace,” he said flatly. They want it “to block the peace, because they want those places to belong to Israel. That’s the history of the settler movement, my friends.”
Vouchsafing new details of his 2013-2104 deal-making efforts, now that he’s so close to the end of his term, Kerry detailed some of the security provisions that, he argued, could enable a substantial Israeli withdrawal, and facilitate a small, demilitarized Palestinian “city state” in the West Bank. The Jordanians were ready to build a sophisticated security fence on their side of the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians on their side. Israeli troops would have been able to helicopter to trouble spots in minutes. There were “all kinds of ways” for Israel and the Palestinians to have joint troops and joint operations, he said, referring to the proposals memorably castigated by then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon in 2014 as “not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Plainly still unpersuaded that Israel’s objections were truly based on concerns about extremist forces filling any West Bank vacuum left by a departing IDF, the secretary referred vaguely to “political decisions” in Israel that had thwarted his efforts — apparently suggesting that Netanyahu, though he recognizes the dangers of a binational state, has lacked the will to face down the hawks in the wider interests of the country. Stability and tranquility were not out of reach for Israel, Kerry suggested, but wouldn’t be attained if “all you’re doing is building up your presence” in what the Palestinians see as their state. And as for that idea beloved by Netanyahu of a regional Arab peace first, and accommodation with the Palestinians somewhere down the line, forget about it. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world,” he insisted.
And was it too late for two states, now, he was asked? “No, we haven’t (passed the tipping point),” he sighed, “but we’re getting…” He trailed off.
In resisting the Obama-Kerry effort, Ya’alon had reportedly declared in January 2014 that Kerry was “messianic” and “inexplicably obsessive” in his quest for an accord and that “all that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” Kerry didn’t get his Nobel, of course, and Israel, it would appear, managed to deflect him quite effectively.
Kerry never dented Netanyahu’s conviction that today’s Middle East, with its vicious unpredictability, is no place for high-risk territorial compromise. And Netanyahu never dented Kerry’s belief that Israel’s fundamental self-interest requires working energetically toward a two-state accord. With Netanyahu’s satellite time from Jerusalem concluding just before Kerry spoke, Sunday thus marked possibly the last round in their dialogue of the deaf.
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