What John Kerry should have told the Saban Forum

Op-ed: We were short-sighted, hesitant, weak. We failed to create the climate in which you in Israel could take the steps you need to take to separate from the Palestinians. I hope my successors will do better

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

John Kerry at the Saban Forum, December 5, 2015 (YouTube Screenshot)
John Kerry at the Saban Forum, December 5, 2015 (YouTube Screenshot)

My friends, I can only begin with an apology. The Obama administration, and myself personally, invested extraordinary efforts in trying to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace. And we failed.

The failure is by no means ours alone. But we made mistakes. Too many. We should have known better. We could have done better.

This prestigious forum has become a place to speak candidly. A place for friends to air their criticisms in a constructive atmosphere. It would be wrong of me, therefore, to start with anything other than an honest acknowledgement of where we went wrong, some self-criticism, if only in the hope that my experiences can help ensure that my successors’ efforts meet with more success. We can’t come to a forum like this, we can’t have meetings under the norms of diplomacy, and pretend.

I see Bogie Ya’alon, the Israeli defense minister, my good friend, out there in the audience somewhere. I see Buji Herzog, the opposition leader and another friend, is here too. And I say to you, and to all Israelis who share the knowledge that Israel must separate from the Palestinians — for Israel’s sake, for the sake of the Palestinians, for the sake of a Jewish democratic Israel — I say to you that, sadly, our administration failed to create a climate in the Middle East in which you could afford to make the territorial compromises necessary to end the conflict. We were unable to foster the wider stability you require in order to make those compromises.

We came into office — and this is, of course, before my time as secretary of state — in an America that was emphatically intent on avoiding fresh military entanglements in your part of the world. And I acknowledge that the desire to stay out of potential new conflicts, a desire that reflected the will of the American people, impacted policy-making from the get-go.

We failed the people of Iran; we misread the Arab Spring; we were weak on Syria

We missed an early opportunity to back the people of Iran in 2009 when they courageously attempted to rise up against the benighted regime that oppresses them. They sought reform. They sought an end to religious coercion. They sought equality for women. They sought the freedoms that we in the West, certainly including Israel, insist upon. And we did nothing to help them. We failed the people of Iran then; I hope and pray that we did not fail them, and did not fail you and indeed ourselves — as I know you believe we did — in the signing of the nuclear deal we reached with the regime in July. I want to believe that we have all but eliminated the Iranian nuclear threat, though I must recognize that the accord cements that regime in power, emboldens it, gives it the resources to promote its pernicious agenda across the region and orchestrate terrorism worldwide. History will be our judge.

We were short-sighted about the Arab Spring, wanting to believe that sheer people power would be enough to drive popular uprisings against tyrannies across the region toward the establishment of genuine, vibrant, abiding democracies. You Israelis warned us. You, in your ambivalence — delighted to see much of the Arab world demanding democracy, but only too aware that it was the Muslim Brotherhood in one guise or another that was best placed to capitalize on the chaos — you told us that, left alone, the heartfelt desire for change would be co-opted, abused by Islamist groups in country after country. And so it proved.

In Syria, weak, hesitant and unprepared, we failed to substantially assist the early secular, relatively moderate opposition to Bashar Assad. I must personally acknowledge that I was wrong about him. He is, of course, anything but a reformer. It is shameful that, even today, he remains in a position where he is capable of slaughtering still more of his people. Not America’s shame alone, I should stress. His continuing presence is a global stain. A mark of moral and practical failure.

I will also confess, in the candid traditions of this forum, that I had anticipated greater American involvement after Assad used poison gas against his own people. But the president, my boss, as is his right, had other ideas.

I know I have no need to lecture most of you in this room, and most Israelis beyond it, about the dangers of a failure to separate from the Palestinians

Our failure to act effectively in Syria, it must be admitted, was at least a partial factor in the rise of the evil Islamic State terrorist organization that is now blighting the lives of so many in the Middle East and, as we saw in Paris last month, so many in Europe too.

Our failure to act, it must be admitted, was at least a partial factor, as well, in the refugee crisis which is now engulfing Europe. It takes a great deal of suffering before a father and a mother load their family onto a puny boat and set sail for the unknown. But when your country’s president is killing you in the hundreds of thousands, and the international community is doing nothing to help you, inertia is no longer an option.

The floods of refugees, and the rise of Islamist terror in Europe, in turn, are prompting worrying trends of rising far-right political forces in several countries. My European colleagues are struggling to find the balance between welcoming those in need and protecting their own citizens and their own values. An unenviable challenge; I only wish we had done more to prevent or at least ameliorate it.

And now I should turn to the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I know I have no need to lecture most of you in this room, and most Israelis beyond it, about the dangers of a failure to separate from the Palestinians. I know that you did not gather the greatest concentration of world Jewry into a narrow strip of land only to lose your Jewish majority, or subvert your democracy, by failing to find an accommodation with the Palestinians. I know, in short, that most of you recognize far better than I or any other well-intentioned outsider the imperative to find a two-state solution, the imperative to reverse the drift toward a single, inseparable Israeli-Palestinian entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

It baffles me that ‘Bibi’ chooses not to halt all settlement building in areas that Israel knows it will not retain under any permanent accord it would sign with the Palestinians

Here, too, even in the spirit of candor and self-criticism, I do not take sole responsibility, not on my behalf and not on behalf of the administration, for the failure to advance. President Mahmoud Abbas is undeniably a more viable interlocutor than any current alternative, and almost certainly than any prospective successors in the foreseeable future. But he has signally failed to impress upon his own people that the Jews have sovereign legitimacy in the Holy Land, and that the path to Palestinian statehood necessarily requires coming to terms with the fact of Jewish sovereignty and reaching fair and just terms for permanent peaceful co-existence. President Abbas, of late, has unfortunately exacerbated conflict and hostility, denying the Jews’ connection to Jerusalem, and thus inciting some of the terrible terrorism and violence that is again costing innocent lives as I speak.

As for your prime minister, my good friend “Bibi” Netanyahu, I regret that he has felt unable to take steps that could have engendered more hope and goodwill among the Palestinians. A settlement freeze is reversible, yet he would not consent to it. That Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians on the basis of the pre-1967 lines is a fact of life. You get it? But he refused to formally acknowledge it. It baffles me that he chooses not to halt all settlement building in areas that Israel knows it will not retain under any permanent accord it would sign with the Palestinians. Settlement building in remote West Bank areas, the legalizing of illegal new outposts, unnecessary demolitions of Palestinian homes in non-sensitive areas — these are moves that reduce the likelihood of greater Palestinian moderation, and therefore constitute actions that harm Israel’s own interests. Your prime minister, my friend Bibi, unfortunately does not see things this way.

I worry, I must tell you, about his commitment to a two-state solution. It may not be workable now, but Israel must play its part in keeping the goal alive and credible.

But we, too, have played our part in prolonging the deadlock and exacerbating the tensions. We should have demanded more, and sooner, from Abbas in curbing the systematic anti-Israel miseducation in Palestinian schools and media, among spiritual leaders, and within his own PA and Fatah hierarchies. We should have made plain that there could and can be no “reconciliation” between him and the Islamist terror group Hamas. We should not have championed Abbas’s request — accepted by Bibi, under our pressure — to release from Israeli jails dozens of Palestinians involved in murder and the orchestration of murder, a move that vindicated terrorism.

We were complacent in drawing up what we wanted to believe were adequate security arrangements to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank. In a different climate, in a different era, perhaps…

We were short-sighted and unsubtle, too, in lumping together for criticism all Israeli building beyond the pre-1967 Green Line. By drawing no distinction between new homes in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank and those in large Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line in Jerusalem, we alienated many Israelis who recognize the dangers of unlimited West Bank settlement and we pushed Abbas up a tree, for how could he allow himself to be seen as more sanguine than the United States about a new housing development in a Jerusalem neighborhood even he does not envisage as part of a Palestine?

Perhaps most importantly, we were complacent in drawing up what we wanted to believe were adequate security arrangements to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank. In a different climate, in a different era, perhaps our recipe of sophisticated fences and radar and intelligence and joint forces and more could have constituted a credible defense on Israel’s eastern flank. But not, I must now acknowledge, in the Middle East of today. The unpredictable, unstable Middle East. The Middle East in which, as Bibi was right to make clear in the summer of 2014, Islamist forces fill any vacuum, and in which adjacent territory is abused by terrorist tunnelers, bombers and launchers of missiles.

I must concede that had Israel bowed to the pressure brought by this well-intentioned administration and withdrawn from much or all of the West Bank — in the lauded interest of separation from the Palestinians — Israelis today would likely not be grappling with a rash of isolated stabbings and car-rammings. You would, rather, probably be facing a return of the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, hatched in the Hamas and Fatah bomb-making factories in the heart of the Palestinian cities of the West Bank.

So greatly do we care for Israel, so deeply do we want to see our ally Israel guarantee its future as a Jewish democratic state, that we failed to internalize the dangers in pressing relentlessly for the necessary territorial compromise at a time when such a withdrawal is simply too dangerous for Israel to contemplate. We acted, I should stress, out of the most profound friendship and support. But we were wrong.

For myself, I pledge to use the short remaining time I have in office to assemble a global coalition to begin the strategic fightback against the death cult of Islamic extremism

Friends, it is not easy to come to a forum such as this and deliver the kind of talk I have just given, as I am sure you will have recognized. I did so as a mark of my respect for you, and in accordance with my lifelong commitment to your well-being. I deeply regret the inability of the United States, including on my watch, to help foster the kind of climate in your region that would enable you to take the steps you know you have to take in order to guarantee the future that you want for yourselves, your children and, yes, for your neighbors.

I do not believe that all is lost. I hope my successors can find a path to restore some kind of stability in Syria. I hope they will act more effectively to prevent Egypt falling back into the embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood. I hope the international community can learn from Israel in acknowledging the name and scale of Islamist terrorism, and in defending against it.

For myself, I pledge to use the short remaining time I have in office to assemble a global coalition to begin the strategic fightback against the death cult of Islamic extremism — where it rears it ugly head and where it creates its new adherents. An international coalition to fund moderate educational institutions. To encourage moderate political and spiritual leadership. To tackle the dissemination of extremist toxins via the internet. To use all the economic and diplomatic leverage we have with those of our allies in whose territory terrorism and extremism thrive, and to use indirect influence, via third parties, over those countries where even the mighty United States has limited sway.

If we can marginalize Islamic extremism at its root — where it is taught and disseminated — we will be reasserting the freedoms that the West rightfully insists upon. And we will be gradually restoring our fundamental ability to live as free men and women — a basic imperative that is being so shaken by murderous acts such as the Paris bloodbath, the killings in San Bernardino, and the seemingly endless acts of terrorism that Israel has to endure.

If we can marginalize Islamic extremism at its root and foster tolerance and moderation, furthermore, we will gradually be producing that yearned-for climate in which Israel can confidently take the steps it needs to take to separate from the Palestinians. And we can thus help ensure that Israel thrives forever as an exemplar of democracy, an engine of innovation and creativity, and a dependable ally of free nations everywhere, and first and foremost its great friend the United States of America.

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