Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry tried on Wednesday to raise from the dead “the two-state solution” that has been the foundation of all serious Arab-Israeli peace negotiations for almost 50 years.
But it’s a process that is exhausted, and Israel, now the preeminent power in the region, has been able to establish in the absence of peace what is generally an absence of war, except for its periodic onslaughts against Gaza to retaliate for crude rocket attacks.
Kerry clearly believes that situation is untenable over the long run, and in sometimes bitter terms he explained the American decision not to veto a UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem as an effort to save the Israelis from themselves.
“The status quo is leading toward one state, or perpetual occupation,” said Kerry.
That one state, if it granted full rights to the Palestinians within its borders, would eventually cease to have a Jewish majority. Alternatively, by depriving the Palestinians of full political and civil rights, it would confirm the fears of many statesmen, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who have warned against the establishment of a de facto apartheid regime.
Nonetheless, the UN vote has created a political storm in the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who often made it a point to bypass the Obama administration to work directly with allies in the U.S. Congress, denounced the UN vote as “a shameful ambush by the Obama administration,” and “a disgrace.”
Some of Netanyahu’s friends on the Hill, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have called for a cut-off in funds to the United Nations because of the vote.
Not-yet-President Donald Trump, echoing Netanyahu, tweeted, “we cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but …… not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (UN)! Stay strong, Israel, January 20th is fast approaching.”
Kerry’s riposte was long, clocking in at 71 minutes, and detailed: “Some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles—even after urging again and again that the policy must change,” he said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
The American secretary of state, who has spent most of his four years in office trying to stabilize the Middle East and bring about a lasting peace to the Israeli-Arab conflict, said, carefully, that “the Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution,” but contrasted that public support with the political, diplomatic, demographic and geographic reality.
Netanyahu’s “current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” he said. “The result is that policies of this government—which the prime minister himself just described as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history’—are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.”
As Palestinians often have pointed out, the expansion of Israeli settlements along with construction of access roads limited to settler traffic has created a situation akin to negotiating for a piece of cake that one side just keeps eating.
Successive Israeli governments have created “facts on the ground” that make it virtually impossible to conceive of a Palestinian state that is “viable and contiguous”—that does not look, as President George W. Bush once put it—“like Swiss cheese,” with nothing more than little pockets of autonomy scattered around.
Netanyahu, after Kerry spoke, said the secretary of state’s remarks were “skewed” and focused “obsessively” on the issue of settlements.
Kerry, who has just 23 days remaining in office, argued that the UN vote was a reasonable extension of U.S. policy that goes back to the Johnson administration: the concept that land conquered in the 1967 war could be traded for a lasting peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Indeed, the focus on stopping Israeli settlement activity was the central feature of the speech President Barack Obama gave in Cairo in 2009, trying to set right the disasters in the region brought on by his predecessor.
“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,” Obama said in his first year in office. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” (The White House transcript notes applause.) “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. (Applause.)”
But they did not stop. And even so, as Kerry noted, every time there was an effort at the UN to condemn them, the United States would veto the resolution as “unbalanced.” The administration clung to the idea it could be the “honest broker” bringing the two sides together.
In the last few months, however, Netanyahu has pushed ahead with increased settlement approvals and activities.
What the gesture in the Security Council will accomplish remains to be seen. When the Israeli government got wind of the possibility that the Obama administration would abstain on the resolution first offered by the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, according to Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, the Israelis got Trump to call Sisi to withdraw the proposal. Then New Zealand stepped in and put it back on the agenda.
And every member of the Security Council except the United States (which abstained) voted for it.
“The Russians favored the Arabs over Israel,” Barnea noted acerbically. “They have been doing that consistently since the early 1950s. Israel’s courtship of Russia generated a bitter smile on the face of our friends in Washington. Russia, Iran’s ally in the war in Syria, is the Israeli government’s great hope.” And Trump’s of course.
How will all this play out?
Kerry, consciously echoing the late Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, tried to paint a positive picture of all the good that peace could bring to Israel and to the region, if only “the two-state solution” could be revived.
But as Jay Michaelson has written for The Daily Beast, the de facto end of that old approach almost certainly will bolster the most extreme elements on both sides of the debate in Israel and Palestine and in the United States. Probably it will encourage ever more aggressive actions by the settler movement and its supporters while bolstering, on the other side, the BDS—boycott, divestment, sanctions—movement in the United States. As Michaelson argued, the U.N. vote was a last chance to act sane.
The impact on floundering efforts to stabilize the region also is likely to be profound. The current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank will now have lost virtually all credibility after more than two decades trying and failing to reach a peace agreement. Radicals will exploit the situation; violence almost certainly will increase. And if it starts to threaten Israeli complacency once more, pressure will grow to try to force the Arabs out altogether.
Where would they go? Some most likely would be pushed into Jordan, already made fragile by influxes of refugees from Iraq and Syria, along with its never-completely-accepted population of Palestinians there whose ancestors first arrived after the 1948 and 1967 wars.
The so-called Islamic State, which has proved repeatedly its ability to re-establish itself in one place after being crushed in another, already is trying to make inroads in Jordan.
In the short term, regional chaos has helped Israel survive in a state of no-war. But with no peace to build on, that situation is not likely to last.