U.S. President Barack Obama sat in his summer house in Hawaii on Tuesday night, going over a draft of the speech Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to deliver a few hours later in Washington.
He called Kerry to summarize some points for the final version. Work on the speech had begun several days after Donald Trump won the presidential election in November. For Obama and Kerry, it was a final note in their attempt to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The president read every word in the speech,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told Haaretz. “In fact, he read multiple drafts of the speech and personally made edits to the speech. It was a John Kerry speech that totally reflects the Obama administration’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the president’s support of the speech is 100 percent,” added Rhodes.
Obama and Kerry had long planned for the latter to deliver a speech before the end of his term, laying out lessons learned from the four years he devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It would also present the administration’s vision regarding the principles that should guide any future negotiations over the core issues of a permanent agreement.
“Ever since the election, we did not know where things will end up with a [UN] Security Council resolution. But we did know even before the election that Kerry [was] going to give a speech. And it was really just a question of when,” said Rhodes.
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Part of the rationale was that Kerry did all of this work and developed all these proposals in his discussions with the Israelis and Palestinians, and that he essentially earned the status of laying out what he had worked on and the lessons he drew from this experience.
The speech also showed Kerry’s deep involvement in all this. He was the right person to detail it all, said Rhodes, adding that Obama will also talk about the issue before he leaves office. However, this will not be in a specific speech but probably during an interview.
The road to abstention
Rhodes has served as a senior adviser to Obama since the latter entered the White House in January 2009. Over the last eight years, he’s become one of the most powerful people surrounding the president, particularly in foreign affairs.
Rhodes was the one who wrote Obama’s famous Cairo speech in June 2009, and also the speech he gave in Jerusalem in March 2013. He also played a key role in formulating the policy that led to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, and to the historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations.
Kerry’s speech came a few days after the Security Council vote urging an end to illegal Israeli settlements. The United States abstained without casting its veto, allowing the resolution to pass 14-0.
Trump’s victory in the presidential election and the negative trends in the West Bank, which in the eyes of the outgoing administration are leading to a single state reality, were a central consideration in Obama and Kerry’s decision to abstain at the UN and to deliver the speech.
“Given the different direction the new administration has signaled, it made it more important for us to get all these ideas out. If there was more continuity with a [Hillary] Clinton administration, I am not sure how it would have affected our calculus.
"But the combination of the complete lack of any peace process, the accelerating and disturbing trends regarding settlements and the directional shift of the incoming administration all factored into our decision both to lay everything out in this speech but also to abstain on the UN resolution.”
In his speech, Kerry presented an outline that included several principles that could guide the two sides in conducting negotiations. He determined that a final agreement should include the drawing of boundaries based on the 1967 borders, with some land swaps; the recognition of Jerusalem as a capital for both countries; and a “fair and realistic” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem – one that would not alter the character of Israel.
Kerry expressed his support for Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state and for the demilitarization of the Palestinian state. He clarified that a large portion of the settlements would stay under Israeli sovereignty and that a peace agreement should finally resolve the conflict between the two peoples and end Palestinian claims on Israel.
One decision many in the administration regret – including Kerry himself – is that these demands were not put forward in March 2014, when Kerry finished formulating his framework document after prolonged talks with both sides. His presentation of a blueprint for peace on Wednesday had symbolic value, but presenting the same blueprint to the two sides three years ago may have led to a breakthrough.
“The reason we didn’t do that is because we meant what we said that our preference was to have final status issues negotiated between the parties,” said Rhodes.
“Kerry was always trying different formulations to get the parties back to the table. We are criticized [for] making an end run when in reality we wanted to give the parties every opportunity to make progress themselves.”
On Wednesday evening, shortly after Kerry’s speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched another vitriolic attack on the outgoing U.S. administration.
He stated his concern that a further resolution would be passed by the Security Council before January 20, based on the principles laid out by Kerry in his speech, and that the United States would again not veto it. “Stop playing these games,” Netanyahu told Obama and Kerry in his public appearance.
Rhodes said that in contrast to Netanyahu’s claims, the Obama administration has no intention of promoting such a move – and that even if another country does propose this, the United States will block it.
“We would veto something that seeks to impose a solution. The reason we abstained on the last UN resolution was it didn’t seek to resolve final status issues. We believe those should be resolved by the parties. Kerry’s principles were designed to be a basis for future negotiation and not to shape a Security Council resolution,” added Rhodes.
The fact that President Obama allowed the settlements resolution to pass in the Security Council drew a furious outburst from the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, setting off personal attacks on Obama and Kerry.
And Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, added a personal attack on Rhodes. Netanyahu and Dermer claimed that the Americans had conspired with the Palestinians behind Israel’s back, and that the White House had initiated, formulated and pushed the UN resolution.
Rhodes vehemently denied that the United States initiated the move at the Security Council. He claims that the documents that were leaked to Egyptian media – which Israel sees as evidence for early coordination between the Obama administration and the Palestinians – were fabricated.
He said that behind Netanyahu’s attack stood mainly the desire to deflect debate from the main issue – the widespread international condemnation of the settlements and danger to the two-state solution – turning this, for the umpteenth time, into a political confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama.
“They would rather have a discussion about conspiracy theories around the resolution than addressing the issue,” said Rhodes. “This is a distraction. We never wanted to draft this resolution, because we didn’t know how we would vote and we didn’t think the United States should be the author of this resolution because of all the problems with the UN as a venue.
"This is not how the resolution would look if we were in fact drafting it. We would have liked to see more balance in the resolution, and this is why we abstained rather than voting in favor. We told people we want more balance. This is what the United States does in the UN. Criticism of settlements used to be accepted as normal, but now there is an effort to delegitimize any criticism of settlements whatsoever.”
Obama’s senior adviser said that if Israel’s government had conducted a different policy regarding settlement construction, it could have prevented the Security Council resolution being passed last week.
He said the American decision to abstain did not stem from construction in the settlement blocs or even in East Jerusalem, but from what has been taking place beyond the separation barrier, deep inside the West Bank, threatening the possibility of creating a future Palestinian state.
He also cited the dramatic rise in the number of settlers in isolated settlements, attempts to legalize illegal outposts and the demolition of Palestinian homes in Area C (which Israel retains almost complete control of).
“Unlike what the Israeli government claims, this has nothing to do with the Western Wall,” said Rhodes. “There is an effort to make it look like we are talking about the building in the [settlement] blocs. If this were the case, we would have vetoed the resolution. If it was settlement growth that was consistent with a future two-state solution, it would be one thing.
"But what we are talking about is building that is taking place deep inside the West Bank and a law that will normalize illegal outposts. These are trends that can’t be ignored.”
Rhodes revealed that Obama and Kerry proposed several times to Netanyahu in recent years that he change the policy of construction in the settlements, in order to prevent increasing international pressure.
“We have told them I don’t know how many times that Israel is going to face greater international pressure if it continues to accelerate settlement activity,” he said, adding,
“This resolution should not be a surprise at all. We have been warning about this for years. We proposed to Netanyahu all sort of deals about settlements – freeze, partial freeze, building only inside the blocs. Kerry has floated those proposals even when he knew the Palestinians would not like it, and every single time the Israeli government blew straight through those proposals.”
The White House doesn’t know what President-elect Donald Trump intends to do with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rhodes said several topics had been raised between Obama and Trump in their post-election talks, including the nuclear deal with Iran, relations with Cuba and the climate accord, but he was not aware of any talks regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Rhodes added that Trump’s declarations about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the fact that he appointed a supporter of settlements as his ambassador to Israel, point to the policy he will pursue. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Trump will enter the White House after January 20 and throw Kerry’s speech into the garbage, he said.
“On January 21, the settlements will still be there and it will still be a source of grave international tension,” said Rhodes. “There will still be an international consensus that supports what John Kerry has put out. So the issue is not going away just because there is a new president, and the mistake will be to assume that – just because the incoming administration might take a different position, claiming that the two-state solution has lost relevance.
"If you look at history, you see the issue is not going away. In the long term, the U.S. national security interest is not served by a one-state solution. History is more likely to validate efforts to promote a two-state solution than it will validate efforts to try to ignore the issue or abandon it altogether.”
Rhodes believes that the person who will really face problems after Trump enters the White House is Netanyahu.
“After January 20, Barack Obama will no longer be available as some foil. It will be evident that the international concern about settlements has nothing to do with Barack Obama but with the settlements. There will not be this constant stirring of the pot about Obama that was used [by Netanyahu] as a distraction from the settlements issue.”
After eight years, do you believe that Netanyahu really wanted to promote the two-state solution?
“His actions thus far speak for themselves. We took Netanyahu at his word when he committed to a two-state solution. But what we see today indicates he was not willing to take risks, and at the different forks in the road the government moved to the right.”