by Mitchell Plitnick
It may seem like US Secretary of State John Kerry is chasing his own tail with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. But he is, intentionally or otherwise, raising some important questions. One is what the official Israeli position really is on the two-state solution. Perhaps the most important one is how foolish, inept and impotent will the United States allow Israel to make it appear? And of greatest concern to Americans, why is this President even less willing to confront Israel, at so dire a time, than any of his predecessors?
At some point during President Barack Obama’s and Kerry’s last trip to Israel earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to put a hold on issuing any new tenders for more settlement construction. To most, this means a settlement freeze, but it’s nothing of that kind.
Building continues at a fast pace, due to a very large number (some 1,500 residential units) of tenders approved between the Israeli elections and Obama’s visit. This was, of course, intentional, as Netanyahu knew he would probably need to make some kind of gesture to Obama. And another huge round of approvals is just waiting, held up in channels, and will probably be approved sometime in the next couple of months. In terms of construction work, there is likely to be almost no noticeable break.
But even this was not enough for Netanyahu. For much of the past months, the temporary hold on new tenders was only rumor. But a few days after Israel’s Army Radio announced it and the settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, confirmed it, Israel announced the approval of tenders for 296 units in the settlement of Beit El. Shortly after that, the Israeli government announced that it would declare four “settlement outposts” newly legal. The outposts are wildcat settlements set up without governmental approval (all settlements on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war are illegal under international law). Sometimes Israel destroys them, sometimes it ignores them; in recent years, it has taken to legalizing some of them retroactively.
That Israel took these steps mere days before Kerry’s return to the region cannot be ignored. It was yet another direct slap in the face by Israel to its benefactor and the one country that stands behind it no matter how egregious Israeli behavior may be. This time, even Kerry took note.
He took the unusual step of summoning the Israeli ambassador for an explanation, and, from reports, at least some degree of dressing down. Which is all well and good, but Israel has no reason to worry about it. Apart from a perhaps unpleasant conversation for its Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, Israel will face no consequences for once again embarrassing the United States.
How do we know this? Well, despite these Israeli actions, the United States pushed the European Union into delaying a vote on labelling imports from Israeli settlements, distinguishing them from products made in Israel proper. Of course, the US is willing to do this in part because it feeds the illusion that there’s a peace process for Kerry to work on, one which would be hindered by an EU move of this sort.
The middle of June has been set as an arbitrary deadline for Kerry’s efforts. Not coincidentally, Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for June 14. At that point, we can expect the Palestinian issue, already pushed aside by first, the Iran war talk, and more recently by the escalating Israeli involvement in Syria, to be completely shunted. Mid-June is also the point at which the EU is now scheduled to vote on labelling settlement products.
This would seem to be a process of going through the motions for the Obama Administration. Obama himself subtly indicated to the Israeli public in his speech there that he was not going to stop them from committing national suicide if that was their chosen course. Meanwhile, he seems only too eager to please AIPAC and the rest of their lobbying cohorts. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State is becoming a laughingstock as a result.
The Palestinians have been cynical about Kerry’s efforts from the beginning. Before this latest trip, one unnamed Palestinian “senior official” expressed his pessimism, saying that the Palestinian position of insisting that Israel release Palestinian prisoners and cease all settlement activity has not changed and neither has the Israeli position. Israel, for its part, continues to mouth platitudes about supporting Kerry’s efforts while acting to thwart them on the ground at every turn.
But while the Israelis are making the right official statements, they are also sneering at Kerry. The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid sums up the view of Kerry, both in Israel and among more veteran diplomatic hands in the US: “A senior Israeli official who has met with Kerry several times said the secretary of state has a messianic enthusiasm for the Israeli-Palestinian issue and acts like someone who was sent to bring the redemption. A Western official familiar with Kerry’s activity agreed with this assessment. ‘Sometimes there’s a feeling that Kerry thinks the only reason his predecessors in the job didn’t bring about a peace agreement is that they weren’t John Kerry,’ he said.”
This is not a negotiator who is inspiring confidence either at home or abroad. And he’s allowing Israel to make a fool of him. Even if this is, as one hopes, a strategy to move the United States out of the center of this conflict, which it is politically incapable of resolving, the cost is becoming very high. And while Israel laughs at Kerry, the only Israeli cabinet member who has shown any semblance of interest even in the failed Oslo process, Tzipi Livni, is isolated in that cabinet and fending off assaults from her left and right as she debates the governmental majority over whether Israel is even interested in a two-state solution. Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi, two of the four major coalition partners, both officially oppose it in their party platforms. The other two, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, both officially support some kind of two-state solution, but with conditions that are incompatible with any conceivable agreement.
Kerry’s credibility as Secretary of State is off to a shaky start, to say the least, and the lack of regard with which he is being held by not only the Israelis but also the Palestinians is going to hurt him throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. In the worst case scenario, that will severely handicap US diplomatic options, which would inevitably mean a focus on non-diplomatic means to secure perceived US interests.
In the article, Ravid mentions former US Secretary of State James Baker, who managed to get the ultra-right wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Conference, which ultimately led to the Oslo peace process. The surrounding circumstances have certainly changed in more than twenty years since Baker’s day. But while the circumstances that both forced and allowed Baker and his boss, George H.W. Bush, to push Shamir to Madrid are radically different, that’s not the greatest factor.
The real difference is that Baker and Bush were willing to exercise real pressure on Israel to get Shamir to acquiesce. That is something Obama has repeatedly shown he won’t do. No matter how insulting Netanyahu’s behavior, no matter how much Israel acts to counter the best interests of the United States, as well as of itself, Obama will do no more than make mild statements calling Israel “unhelpful.” And Israel couldn’t care less about that.
It’s easy, and certainly correct, to blame AIPAC for this state of affairs. But even AIPAC has its limits, and they cannot brazenly defy a second-term President who is determined to get something done. Bush the Elder did it. Bill Clinton did it at Wye River. Even Bush the Younger did it in 2003, when he reduced Israel’s loan guarantees after Israel refused to alter the route of its security fence according to US wishes.
Somehow, Obama can’t find the same backbone. And ultimately, even if Kerry’s efforts were far more sensible than they are, without that level of presidential backing — a level that all of Obama’s predecessors reached, despite their own one-sided and destructively myopic support of Israeli excesses — there is no chance for success.