A Friend in Need

Why Israel should count itself lucky to have a straight-talking pal like John Kerry.

Photo by Yonatan Sindel-Pool/Getty Images
Photo by Yonatan Sindel-Pool/Getty Images

John Kerry is Israel’s best friend. Seriously. He’s not the kind of friend whom you’re going to call to play Frisbee with in the park, plan your bachelor party, or be there for you after a nasty breakup.

Israel has lots of those kinds of friends. They’re the ones who tell it what it wants to hear or come to its defense when other people say harsh (but true) things about it. These people call themselves the "pro-Israel community."

Kerry’s a better friend than that.

He’s the kind of friend who will cut you off at the bar when you’ve had enough to drink or who will step in and prevent you from getting in a fight. In the case of Israel, he’s the friend who’s not afraid to speak some unpleasant truths about the dark future that could be facing the Jewish state — as the U.S. secretary of state did this weekend in raising the specter of Israel becoming a virtual apartheid state if no peace agreement with the Palestinians is achieved.

Alas, with the deadline for the Kerry talks to end having now come and gone, Israel has failed to heed the wise counsel of its good friend. In the process, its leaders are making a historic and catastrophic mistake that will quite possibly doom Israel to a near-term future of isolation, delegitimization, and violence.

Things did not have to be this way.

Nine months ago, when Kerry’s quixotic peace effort began, Israel could not have been in a better position: a weakened Palestinian national movement helmed by a leader more committed than any other in Palestinian history to a two-state solution, a neutralized Hamas, a decline in support among Palestinians for armed struggle, and an Arab world willing, even eager, to end the conflict. After the constant drumbeat of suicide terrorism in 2002 and 2003, Israel is enjoying a rare period of sustained peace and security. While Israelis remain skeptical about the potential for a permanent solution, a large percentage of the country continues to support a two-state solution and — as poll after poll shows — are willing to make concessions in the pursuit of peace.

Perhaps above all, the Israelis had a friend in Kerry willing to bend over backward to pacify Israel’s security concerns.

Yet the response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not to embrace the possibility for peace, but to consistently and flagrantly undercut it. For example, the United States convinced the Palestinians to put aside their demand that Israel end settlement construction in the West Bank as a precondition to begin talks and instead accept the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. What was Bibi’s response? According to a report from the settlement watchdog group Peace Now, the Israeli government has, since the talks began, approved the construction of 14,000 more settler homes in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Netanyahu seemingly has gone out of his way to stick a sharp pencil in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s eye (while also standing largely silent as members of his own cabinet publicly disrespected Kerry).

Public conciliation efforts by Abbas — like floating the idea of an extended Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, publicly waiving his own right of return, or last week recognizing the unique horror of the Holocaust — should have been welcomed by Israeli leaders. Instead they were trivialized, denigrated, or ignored. No serious effort was made by Bibi to prepare the Israeli public for the possibility of peace, as is constantly demanded by Israelis of Palestinian leaders. Instead, Netanyahu and his right-wing minions continuously disparaged Abbas as a partner for peace and put more and more obstacles in the way of a potential deal.

While Abbas’s decision to seek international recognition and later strike a unity deal with Hamas had the nominal effect of throwing a monkey wrench in the negotiations, he has made a far more serious effort to find common ground. Netanyahu’s apparent strategy has been to wring as many concessions — no matter how minor — out of his Palestinian interlocutors while offering nothing but bluster in return. It’s zero-sum peacemaking, and it has blown up in his face — because unlike in the past, there isn’t going to be any question about who will get blamed when yet another round of Arab-Israeli peace talks falls apart.

Indeed, one of the more striking developments over the past few weeks is how much more nimble and effective Palestinian diplomacy has been in comparison to that of Israel. For much of the past year, Abbas was forced to withstand Netanyahu’s constant humiliations, wary of being blamed if talks fell apart. But in March, as the prospect of the failure of the talks increased, U.S. pressure on Israel grew, and Netanyahu refused to abide by previously agreed-upon commitments to release prisoners. Abbas responded aggressively. He sought entry into 15 international organizations; he reached a unity deal with Hamas; he refused to walk away from negotiations, even going so far as offering to meet Bibi "at any place and at any time." "We salute the American efforts," Abbas reportedly said, "but Israel is procrastinating."

Abbas clearly was not content to sit on his hands. Instead, he has run diplomatic circles around the flat-footed Israelis, who have responded by rolling out the same, barely credible talking points blaming the Palestinians for "unilateral moves" that doomed the talks (as if unceasing settlement construction builds trust between both sides).

All of this leaves Israel in a terrible spot.

Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition — which could, ominously for Israel, include the International Criminal Court — are going to create a diplomatic wildfire for Israel. The United States has long carried water for Israel in international forums like the United Nations, but this could prove increasingly difficult. As President Barack Obama recently noted in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, "If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction … if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited."

Obama’s words are another harbinger of tr
oubles ahead for the Israelis. When one factors in Obama’s inclination to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran (against the strident opposition of Israel), the declining influence of AIPAC in Washington, and the evident frustration among American diplomats over the apparent failure of the current peace talks, we seem to be entering a period of frostier U.S.-Israel relations.

Far worse for Israel, however, will likely be the economic fallout. Over the past year, a movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel over its policies in the West Bank has gathered steam. It began in July 2013 when the European Union offered new guidelines that prohibit EU money from partnering with entities that operate east of the 1967 lines in occupied Palestinian territory. A number of European companies have followed suit. Notable academics such as Stephen Hawking and musicians like Roger Waters and others have also heeded calls to boycott Israel. It’s hard to imagine the BDS effort not ramping up if the talks officially break down.

As Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid noted earlier this year, a "European boycott" will affect Israeli trade relations with its largest trading partner and mean a higher cost of living, a reduced national budget, and potentially up to 10,000 lost jobs.

Then there is the security side. For the past several years, the Israeli government has outsourced security in the West Bank and administration of the occupation to the Palestinian Authority, which has by all accounts performed admirably in preventing renewed violence against Israelis. How long will that continue in the absence of any negotiating path toward a Palestinian state?

For Israelis, there is a widely held view that the status quo can be maintained ad infinitum. That may very well be true — until it’s not true anymore. Yes, it’s possible that in the near term nothing much will change: that Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel will fail, that the BDS movement will crash and burn, that the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain unchanged, and that Israel will somehow be able to maintain its democratic character even as it rules over a majority population of Palestinians who lack full political rights.

Or, it will no longer be possible — and if that happens, Israel will be desperately seeking a friend to help it out of the hole it has dug.

Indeed, it’s precisely this possibility and the uncertainty of what happens next that should be most worrisome to Israelis. A peace agreement right now — no matter how painful to accept — is the most certain path for the Jewish state. That’s what Israel’s best friend has been trying to tell them for the past year. Kerry has given Israel an exit ramp — and the country’s leaders have ignored it.

When all is said and done, John Kerry may face personal embarrassment at the failure of his peace process gambit, but it’s Israel that will experience the real tragedy.

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