Argument

Kerry’s Mideast Peace Push Is Too Little, Too Late

The U.S. secretary of state’s speech laying out terms for a two-state solution is the final example of the Obama administration’s failure to move the needle on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 28: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at The U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. Kerry spoke on the need for a two-state solution and defended the Obama administration's approach to Israel. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 28: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at The U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. Kerry spoke on the need for a two-state solution and defended the Obama administration's approach to Israel. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech Wednesday laying out the U.S. vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace offered little that was new. Kerry endorsed common-sense positions that have long been considered the answers to the conflict’s most divisive issues — he endorsed two states for two peoples based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, compensation for Palestinian refugees in lieu of a right of return, and a demilitarized Palestinian state to account for Israeli security needs.

Although the substance of the speech may have been humdrum, its circumstances and timing are notable — and provide a window into the state of the Israeli-Palestinian issue following eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Although Kerry deserves credit for his efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the timing of this parameters speech was odd, to say the least. Not only are Israelis and Palestinians unlikely to sit back down at the negotiating table; American credibility and leverage with both sides have rarely been lower.

The speech is in line with Kerry’s previous efforts in this arena, where his desire to get something done has been out of whack with the prevailing political winds. The Kerry-led peace talks in 2013 and 2014 were a prime example of this dynamic, where neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed particularly motivated to sit down at the table and only did so after much cajoling from Kerry. The end result was a collapse of negotiations, the hardening of positions on both sides, waning support for a two-state solution among Palestinians, and more settlement expansion by Israel.

Of course, Kerry’s speech precedes the inauguration of Donald Trump’s administration, which is unlikely to make peace negotiations a priority, and comes on the heels of the U.S. abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For these reasons, Kerry’s speech is unlikely to prod either Israel or the Palestinians to make any movements toward peace. In fact, it has the potential to make things worse as both sides reject his parameters and dig in even further.

Two factors seem to be driving Kerry’s urge to give this speech now, in the waning days of the Obama administration. The first is the Trump variable: Say what you will about the wisdom of Obama and Kerry’s efforts to wade into the Israeli-Palestinian morass, but on the big picture — the crucial preservation of the two-state solution — there is no doubt that they got things right. They both recognized from the start that having two states was the only way to preserve an Israeli future that is both Jewish and democratic, and their messaging has consistently reinforced that point.

Although this has been an uncontroversial bipartisan view for years, Trump’s election carries the risk that this policy may be abandoned. His team scrubbed all language about a two-state solution from the Republican platform at the convention this past summer, and his nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an outspoken two-state foe. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s new envoy for international negotiations, has also suggested that a one-state solution would not only be best but be embraced by Palestinians as well.

Kerry’s speech, with its focus on the importance of preserving a two-state solution even in the absence of an environment conducive to negotiations, is an attempt to marshal the influence of his pulpit during the remaining days of his tenure to bind the Trump administration to a policy that it may otherwise be inclined to ditch. This is not President Bill Clinton attempting to forge a lasting peace in his final days in office but simply an attempt to hold the line against an oncoming deluge.

The other factor driving Kerry’s timing is the abandonment by the Israeli government of any pretext toward restraining settlements. Since Trump’s election in November, Israeli cabinet ministers have publicly called for the government to annex parts of the West Bank, declared the end of the era of a Palestinian state, and most saliently have passed what is known as the “Regulation Bill,” which would legalize every existing Israeli town and structure in the West Bank built illegally on private Palestinian land.

It is impossible to overstate what a dramatic step this bill represents. Israel’s high court will almost certainly strike it down; Netanyahu’s own hand-selected attorney general has declared it illegal under both Israeli and international law and refused to argue before the court on its behalf. Although many on the right are convinced that Obama has been out to get Israel from day one and bided his time until there would be no adverse electoral ramifications, it beggars belief to think that the Regulation Bill played no part in Kerry’s calculus to lay down parameters. Anyone who has spent any time talking to State Department officials during the past four years knows their belief that Israeli settlement expansion is destroying the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank is genuine. The Regulation Bill is a nuclear bomb in this regard.

The irony is that Kerry’s speech — which was dropped by Israeli television channels after 20 minutes and which Netanyahu immediately decried as biased against Israel — was doomed to fail with Israelis irrespective of its content, largely because of the ongoing fury over the American abstention at the U.N. Security Council last week. However, Kerry’s parameters were a notable improvement over the passed resolution. Unlike the Security Council resolution, Kerry’s parameters explicitly acknowledged that Israel is expected to keep settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in any future peace deal, strongly called out Hamas for its violent intransigence, and stated flat out that settlements are not the core issue driving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This raises the question of why the United States did not veto the resolution last week and then have Kerry present this vision. It would have been a lot harder for the Netanyahu government to angrily dismiss Kerry’s words following an American veto. It also raises the question of why this speech was not given years ago when it had a chance of being translated into policy rather than now, when it is unlikely to have a tangible effect.

Perhaps the Obama administration simply miscalculated or was reluctant to do anything to upset the balance required to get the Iran deal through Congress. Whatever the reason, this particular intervention in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is likely too little, too late. Kerry should be applauded for his effort, but the current state of politics in Israel and the West Bank means that his parameters will not move the parties an inch.

After eight years, the recurring theme on Israel is the same: The Obama administration sees the big picture remarkably clearly but is unable to read the politics or master the intricacies to get where it wants to go.

Photo credit: ZACH GIBSON/Getty Images

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter at: @mkoplow.

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