Kerry’s Speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was far too vague and years too late.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent speech about seeking a path to peace in Israel was celebrated by many liberals and progressives for blending constructive plans for the region with necessary criticism of Israeli policy. Because Kerry waited to give this speech, which failed to offer a truly fresh perspective on how to work towards a two-state solution, until his final days in office, though, history will likely render it meaningless.
Kerry’s Final Plea for Peace in the Middle East Marks Dramatic Shift in Tone
On Wednesday, December 28th, mere days after the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which called for an end to the construction of Israeli settlements in occupied areas, outgoing U.S Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a landmark speech in which he provided reasoning behind the United States’ decision to abstain from the Security Council vote. During the speech, Secretary Kerry defended the Obama administration’s decision to not to use its veto power in order to prevent this resolution from passing by stating that the United States should not “stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace,” and that Resolution 2334 “rightly condemns violence and incitement and settlement activity.”
Secretary Kerry employed a tone that was far more critical of the Israeli government than that of any speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent memory. According to Kerry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda is driven by “extreme elements,” and his policies are leading towards a one-state resolution to the regional conflict. “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic,” proclaimed Kerry. “It cannot be both.” Though some saw his speech as far too focused on criticisms of the sitting Israeli government, Kerry spent most of his time outlining plans for peace in Israel and Palestine. He proclaimed that a peace agreement must be based on the 1967 lines, that the occupation must end, that all citizens must have equal rights, and that Jerusalem must serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. During the height of his speech, he emphatically claimed that “if we had vetoed this resolution, the United States would have been giving license to further unfettered settlement construction that we fundamentally oppose.”
In Kerry’s Mind, A Two-State Solution is Beneficial to All
The Kerry speech was widely celebrated by both liberal Zionists and supporters of Palestinian liberation. J Street, an advocacy group that describes itself as the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” wrote in a December 28 press release that “the Secretary laid out a clear choice for those who care about Israel’s future and security as the democratic home of the Jewish people.” Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian scholar and activist James Zogby wrote in a statement that “Kerry’s intervention is both welcome, validating, and empowering. He laid down markers that should help liberals and progressives define a policy agenda on the Israel-Palestine conflict—exactly what we need as we enter the challenges of the Trump era.”
This widespread appeal is most directly a result of Kerry’s mostly successful attempts to connect Resolution 2334 with an American effort to prevent a two-state solution from falling apart entirely. Operating under the assumption that Israel’s attempts to expand settlement development are directly connected to a desire to implement a one-state solution, Kerry explicitly states in one of the speech’s most memorable moment that a formal annexation of Palestinian territory would force Israel to choose whether to be “Jewish or democratic”. After all, if, through annexation, more than five million Palestinians were to be added to the population of Israel, Israel would be forced to either grant all Palestinians full citizenship and thus no longer be Jewish, or withhold rights from a significant percentage of its residents and thus no longer be democratic. On the other hand, Secretary Kerry attempted to appeal to supporters of Israel by listing practical advantages to Israel that could come from the discontinuation of settlement construction and by refraining from dwelling on the potential consequences that could come from continued violation of international law. Like the diplomat he is, Kerry was mostly successful in his attempt to please all participants in the conflict in order to accelerate the peace process.
Kerry Fails to Recognize That Israel and Palestine Are Not Equally to Blame
However, to celebrate Secretary Kerry’s speech without looking critically at how ineffective it is likely to be would be a grave mistake. First and foremost, Kerry’s speech, though arguably groundbreaking in terms of tone, didn’t offer any new perspectives on how to bring forth peace in Israel. Kerry makes the common mistake of falsely asserting that symmetry exists between the parties instead of recognizing that certain disparities in terms of capability, resources, and support for Israel and Palestine have prohibited the implementation of a viable two-state solution at any point over the past fifty years. While the citizens of Israel, a nation that is supported by some of the most powerful governments and militaries in the world, are currently thriving both socially and economically, Palestinians live under an oppressive occupying regime, in dispersed refugee camps, or in diaspora. While Israel, which is home to the strongest military in the Middle East, is currently in a state of relative security, Palestine has been the victim of countless Israeli offenses that many consider being violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. When Kerry declares, often implicitly, that both sides are to blame for a lack of progress, he fails to take into account the expansion of settlement construction, blockades on Palestinian communities, and discriminatory ethnic policies in Israel. Moreover, Kerry seems to contradict the provisions introduced in Resolution 2334 when he notes that, if peace talks ever lead to the development of a sovereign Palestine, the United States would do all in its power to ensure that Israel is able to keep its largest settlements, despite the recent resolution’s proclamation that all settlements built after 1967 are inherently unlawful. By failing to recognize the very real disparities that exist between Israel and Palestine in an attempt to appear impartial, Kerry’s speech only serves as a further impediment to the peace process.
Condemnation of Settlement Construction: Too Little, Too Late
Even if one is to focus solely on the parts of Kerry’s speech that support the affirmation of Palestinian self-determination, it is undeniable that the solutions that he has introduced with likely less than a month left as Secretary of State are far too incremental and have arrived far too late. Though Kerry’s willingness to dispense hard truths about the threat that the settler agenda poses to regional stability should be (cautiously) celebrated, words mean far less than actions (or, often in the case of the United States, inactions). Though John Kerry had four years (and President Obama had eight years) to move beyond rhetorical flourishes and to apply direct political and economic pressure on Israel in order to encourage an end to settlement construction, Kerry’s speech, delivered after the election of the United States’ next president and the selection of the next Secretary of State, was the first action that the United States has taken to explicitly criticize Israeli policy since 2008. In fact, this was the first formal action that the United States executive branch took to criticize Israel since 1992 when former Secretary of State James Baker threatened to cut funding to Israel if settlement construction didn’t end.
Since 1993, when President Bill Clinton brought Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the White House to sign the first of the Oslo Accords, though, the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land in the West Bank has risen from 109,000 to more than 400,000 today. This number doesn’t even take into account the residents of the 17 settlements that exist in East Jerusalem, which isolate Palestinian neighborhoods in the city from the West Bank and dash hopes that Jerusalem could serve as the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state. The Oslo process, allegedly initiated by the United States with the hopes of bringing forth a two-state solution, has instead made such a solution much more difficult to achieve because of the Accords’ failure to stipulate a ban on settlement construction. When one considers that, following these agreements, the United States has consistently supported Israel on both a political and economic level through the dispersion of a disproportionately large amount of aid (including a $38,000,000,000 military aid package that Kerry and Obama agreed to in September) despite continued settlement development, Kerry’s words lose a significant amount of meaning.
In 2013, Secretary Kerry warned that the “window for a two-state solution is shutting,” later estimating that there were two years left for such a solution to come into existence. In his recent condemnatory speech, Kerry is pleading for a solution that he very well knows is likely impossible at this point as a direct result of the United States’ unconditional financial and political support for a country that has demonstrated an unhesitant willingness to violate international law and act as an aggressor towards the nation that it has occupied.
Donald Trump is the Final Nail in the Two-State Solution’s Coffin
One can’t help but wonder what effect the Obama administration hoped that this speech would have on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “It is difficult to believe that Kerry came to these conclusions this week since he has been around for four years and the Obama administration has been around for eight,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “One wonders what is the point here.”
In a little more than a week, President Obama and Secretary Kerry will be leaving the Oval Office and the Department of State in the hands of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson, both of whom have promised to ensure that the United States’ “special relationship” with the State of Israel remains strong. Netanyahu has been far from shy about his support for Trump after the latter’s unexpected win in November. “You are a great friend of Israel. Over the years, you have expressed your support consistently, and I deeply appreciate it,” Netanyahu said to Trump in a short video. “I look forward to working with you to advance security, prosperity, and peace.” Trump, in response to Netanyahu’s praise, has vowed to work to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, providing a further obstacle to the development of a sovereign Palestinian state.
David Friedman, Trump’s selection for United States ambassador to Israel, also holds extreme views that could make peace in the region an impossibility. Along with comparing pro-peace groups such as J Street to Jewish kapos who collaborated with Nazis in concentration camps, Friedman has publicly argued for the continued construction of Israeli settlements in occupied areas, personally contributed financially to the development of settlements, and openly suggested that Israel annexes some of the lands with settlements on it. It doesn’t appear that Congress will serve as a check on the Trump administration’s hyper-Zionism, either; last week, House members voted 342-80 in favor of a resolution that opposed the United States’ decision to abstain from voting on U.N.S.C. Resolution 2334.
Had Kerry delivered his honest, if occasionally shallow, speech two or three years ago, perhaps we’d have more of a reason to listen. Instead, though, history shall remember his delayed attempt to lay down a foundation on which a two-state solution could develop as an essentially meaningless attempt by an outgoing administration to protect its legacy through a shameless act of self-aggrandizing.