Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a frank, comprehensive and programmatic speech on Wednesday on Israeli-Palestinian peace. He outlined the complex but nonetheless only possible blueprint to achieve a two-state solution. He presented Israel with a stark reality check on the historic damage wrought by Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That his address was immediately dismissed as irrelevant and pathetic while one or two meaningless tweets by President-Elect Donald Trump were greeted as the words of the Oracle of Delphi was a good indication of where we’re coming from and where we’re apparently going.
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“Stay strong, Israel, January 20th is fast approaching”, tweeted Trump. Since Friday’s Security Council decision, Trump has been careful to comfort Israel with general words of support but has pointedly refrained from actually endorsing the settlements that the UN denounced. Netanyahu, who is seemingly untroubled by this glaring omission, warmly thanked the incoming President, taking care to tag his daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. in his tweet. Which only goes to show that Israel will be more than willing to embrace Trump not only as President, but as a dynasty as well.
In this sense, Kerry’s speech was not just a summation - some would say eulogy - for eight years of failed efforts by the Obama administration to move the peace process forward, it was also a rite of transition from one era to the next. A few moments before Obama’s detached “no drama” approach gives way to the tempestuous instincts of a Trump Presidency, before a careful, perhaps too careful American approach is replaced by shoot-from-the-hip policies encapsulated in 140 character tweets, before a proud U.S. tradition of peacemaking based on experience and precedent dissolves into a Twilight Zone where nothing is known and everything is possible, Kerry sought to lay down a historic record of his view of the conflict. Perhaps one day someone might find it useful in trying to save Israelis and Palestinians from themselves, on the assumption that there will still be something to save.
The principles laid down by Kerry are well known and long recognized as the foundation stones of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but in the alt-reality of 2017 they sounded strange and eerily detached. June '67 borders with mutually agreed swaps? Jerusalem as the capital of two states? An agreed solution to the refugee problem? The words sound archaic, echoes of a world that no longer exists. The two and a half years that have gone by since Kerry stopped trying to move things forward have erased them from consciousness: They sound familiar, though it’s hard to remember in what context.
Why didn’t Kerry make his speech earlier, many people grumbled. He did, actually, as did Obama, on numerous occasions: They were always met with the same wild Israeli backlash. Why did Kerry wait till Obama turned into a lame duck and was immune from political pressures? Because that’s the way American politics work. Ronald Reagan recognized the PLO in December 1988 and Bill Clinton presented his parameters in January 2001 after their successors had been elected. Why was the speech so one sided and focused on the settlements? Because settlements are irreversible, and because that’s what you get if you maintain an antagonistic relationship with an American administration: a Security Council resolution you don’t like and a full-on Kerry speech that you like even less.
Netanyahu’s reaction was swift and harsh, and rightly so: Way before the Israeli attorney general gets around to it, Kerry’s speech was an indictment of Netanyahu and his policies. Kerry rejected Netanyahu’s claim of U.S. “collusion” - aimed, it seems, to curry favor with Trump and possibly to deflect attention away from his impending criminal investigations - but Netanyahu later doubled down on it. Kerry starkly depicted Netanyahu’s hypocrisy, for holding up the two-state solution with one hand but allowing settlement expansion to destroy it with the other. At the same time, he portrayed Netanyahu as an instrument of the settlers by pointing out the obvious truth that so many Israeli willfully ignore or have come to accept: “The settler agenda is defining the future of Israel.”
Kerry was and will be lambasted by Netanyahu and his ministers, along with Obama himself, in what has become one of the ugliest chapters in U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu does not prescribe to Ariel Sharon’s rule “restraint is strength” nor to Yitzhak Rabin’s maxim “Crying does not make for leadership”. In recent days, in Netanyahu’s Israel, hysteria is strength, wailing is leadership and shouting gevalt is the new Zionist ideal. Decades of support that Kerry has shown Israel in the Senate and the State Department account for nothing compared to the concern for each and every Jewish settlement. Eight years of steadfast Obama support for Israel’s security are thrown aside when the administration dares to challenge Netanyahu’s staple “we’ve done nothing wrong it’s all the Palestinians” excuse. Ingratitude, Jewish sages teach us, is the absolute worst of traits. “Whoever rewards evil for good, Evil will not depart from his house,” as Proverbs puts it.