U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chose to devote the main portion of his speech to his personal connection to Israel since his first visit as a young senator 30 years ago. He told of climbing up Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, going from one biblical city to another, seeing the Holocaust atrocities at Yad Vashem, and even told of how he piloted an air force plane over Israel to understand its security needs.
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There aren’t too many other American politicians who know Israel the way John Kerry does. There isn’t a single serving American politician who has delved as deeply into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has invested in studying and trying to resolve it as John Kerry. These things were clearly reflected in his speech. The secretary of state gave a cogent analysis of where things stand in the peace process these days. He noted the deep distrust between the parties, the despair, anger and frustration on the Palestinian side, and the isolation and indifference on the Israeli side.
Kerry’s address was a superbly Zionist and pro-Israel speech. Anyone who truly supports the two-state solution and a Jewish and democratic Israel should welcome his remarks and support them. It's a binary incidence, with no middle ground. It’s no surprise that those who hastened to condemn Kerry even before he spoke and even more so afterward were Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and the heads of the settler lobby. Kerry noted in his speech that it is this minority that is leading the Israeli government and the indifferent majority toward a one-state solution.
Over the past four years, the American secretary of state often acted clumsily, obsessively and even with a touch of messianism, but he did so for a good and just cause. He tried with all his might to end 100 years of conflict to assure the future of Israel, America’s greatest ally, and end Palestinian suffering. Unfortunately, his two partners in this mission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, simply didn’t want it as much as he did. Over the past four years, Abbas and Netanyahu were mirror images of each other. They focused on preserving the status quo, stayed entrenched in their positions and weren’t willing to take even the smallest risk or shift one millimeter to try and achieve a breakthrough.
Kerry’s speech was long and detailed, but its heart was the outline for peace that he presented. The outline wasn’t intended to be an imposed solution, but to include the basic principles by which all future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be conducted. The outline was based on the framework document he had formulated in March 2014 after several months of talks with both parties.
When you read Kerry’s words, you see immediately that he accepted a significant number of Israel’s demands, first and foremost the demand that any future peace agreement include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Kerry also stated that a solution to the refugee problem would have to be just and practical, one that would not undermine the State of Israel’s character. He said that any future border would be based on leaving the large settlement blocs in Israel’s hands; he clarified that the permanent arrangement must constitute an end to the conflict and preclude any further Palestinian demands, and stressed security arrangements as a central component of any agreement.
At the same time, Kerry’s outline includes a series of compromises that Israel would be required to make, first and foremost allowing Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both states. Kerry clarified that the borders of the Palestinian state would have to be based on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps of equivalent size, and that Israel must recognize the suffering of the Palestinian refugees.
The main problem with Kerry’s outline is that he presented it too late. He knows that he made a mistake when in March 2014 he did not officially put his framework document, with the same principles that he enumerated in his speech, on the table. His senior advisers admit that if he could go back 33 months in time, Kerry would have presented his peace outline to both sides and summoned them to negotiate on its basis.
Such a “take it or leave it” move at that time would have forced both sides to make strategic decisions. Such a move would also have established the Kerry outline as the basis for all future talks. Its presentation only three weeks before Donald Trump enters the White House, as important as it is, gives it only symbolic worth.
As in many instances in the past, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to listen to Kerry’s remarks or address their merits. He responded with an aggressive statement containing sharp personal criticism of Kerry. There are those who will say that the depths of his declarations reflect the depth of the investigations of him.
Netanyahu’s criticism was spiced with hypocrisy and cynicism. The principles that Kerry enumerated in his address were the same ones Netanyahu agreed to accept in March 2014. The prime minister had reservations, which he planned to express publicly, but in practice he agreed to negotiate on the basis of this very same outline. To this day Netanyahu refuses to admit it.
His political twin, Abbas, reacted with equal hypocrisy. When U.S. President Barack Obama presented the outline to Abbas in March 2014, Abbas promised to think about it and get back to Obama. To this day Obama is still waiting. Even after Kerry’s speech on Wednesday, Abbas refused to say if the outline was acceptable to him or not.
President-elect Trump, who seemed to accept the UN Security Council resolution on the settlements last week, responding to it with a faintly worded tweet, couldn’t restrain himself with Kerry’s speech. Only a short while before Kerry began to speak, Trump shot out three tweets that made his dissatisfaction clear.
Over the past few months, Trump has repeatedly said that one of his goals is to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He made it clear that he wants to close “the mother of all deals” and end “the war that never ends” between the two sides. Trump even appointed his lawyer and close associate Jason Greenblatt as special envoy to the peace process. Trump and Greenblatt will soon discover that if they want to make this historic deal, it will probably look very much like the one Kerry sketched out in his address.