by Elliott Abrams
In the Obama administration's waning days, global challenges to American interests abound. In Syria, which will be a bloody stain on the reputations of Barack Obama and John Kerry, the killing continues. The effort to free Mosul from ISIS is slowing. The rise of Iranian influence in the Gulf and the Levant, of China in Asia and the western Pacific, and of Putin's Russia in both Europe and the Middle East, all continue. One might have thought any of these could be the subject of a final address by the president or the secretary of state.
But one would have been wrong. John Kerry delivered what is probably the last major speech of the Obama administration Wednesday, and its subject was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and especially the growth of Israeli settlements. So the Obama administration ends where it began: obsessed with Israelis and Palestinians as if their struggle were the key to peace in the entire region, and with construction of homes in settlements and in Jerusalem as if it were the major roadblock to a peace agreement.
In a speech that was remarkable for its length, its defensive and even whiny tone, its attack on the government of Israel, and for its lack of new ideas, Kerry tried to explain both last week's failure to veto a UN Security Council resolution and eight years of failed Obama policy. His central argument was that the two-state solution is essential, is possible, and is being destroyed by Israeli settlements. The administration did not veto the resolution, he said, because it was balanced: It rebuked Israel for settlement expansion but also rebuked the Palestinians for incitement.
The latter point is significant, and shows the fundamental failure of Kerry's argument. The resolution passed last week will do actual damage to Israel, because calling all the settlements and even construction in East Jerusalem a violation of international law opens Israel to further boycotts and to prosecution as criminals (in local courts all over the world or the International Criminal Court) of Israeli officials or of settlers. The "balance" that moved the administration to permit adoption of the resolution was non-existent: There is in the resolution no call upon the Palestinians to stop glorifying terrorism by naming schools and parks after murderers and celebrating their "achievements." Instead the resolution does not mention the Palestinians in that context at all and merely "calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism…and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism." Israel is condemned but the Palestinians are never criticized in that supposedly "balanced" text.
Kerry noted in his speech that "We have repeatedly and emphatically stressed to the Palestinians that all incitement to violence must stop." Kerry actually spoke at some length about these Palestinian practices, as if repeating how much he dislikes them strengthened his point. But it does not, because the United States has been complaining about this for all eight years of the Obama administration to no effect whatsoever. The key point is that the Palestinians are never penalized for glorifying terrorand the U.N. resolution doesn't penalize them either. The resolution will harm Israel and do nothing at all to the Palestinians, which means it is not balanced and Kerry's argument here is simply false.
Kerry did acknowledge that the settlements per se are not "the whole or even primary cause" of the failure to achieve a peace deal, and that land swaps would actually absorb most of the settler population into Israel. And he was certainly right to note that the more settlers who live beyond the Israeli security barrier, the harder it will be to get political support in any Israeli coalition government for a peace agreement under which they must move out. He was right to suggest that the strength of the settler movement makes it hard for any prime minister to negotiate and to challenge the logic of an increasing settler population in outlying areas that under any conceivable agreement would not form part of Israel. And Kerry also had some practical suggestions about how life can be made better for Palestinians, for example by expanding their economic activities in Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank.
Had he focused on such practical steps for the last four years, had he made his case about settlement activity without the apocalyptic tone, and had he ever penalized the Palestinians for actually killing Israelis and then glorifying those acts, his arguments might be more persuasive and receive a larger audience than they will today. At this moment, they seem like the last defense of a policy that has achieved nothing except damaging bilateral relations.
Kerry presented himself as a devoted friend of Israel, but what came through far more powerfully was his complete failure to understand how progress could be made. He and Obama tried from the start to reach an impossible comprehensive deal (just as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had done) rather than focus on the incremental progress that really might have been achieved. To call for such incremental progress, three weeks before he leaves office, is folly; he wasted four years and Obama wasted eight viewing such steps as "small ball" unworthy of great men such as they. Kerry's speech called for "realistic steps on the ground" now to establish the path forward. If only he had said that in 2013 when he took office, or Obama had said it in 2009, progress might actually have been possible.
But why is a comprehensive agreement not possible? Here Kerry was hopeless. He said he had failed because the two parties lack trust, not because they are far apart. It is an old argument: they are an inch apart, the issues are not so hard, we will push and pull them over the line. American leaders have been trying that since 1967, and it was not so much audacity as vanity that led Kerry to believe he would succeed where all his predecessors had failed. But they are far apart, very far apart, and Kerry's "parameters" for peace actually demonstrated that—and also demonstrated that this administration has failed to achieve anything in its search for peace except to undercut the Israeli position.
Kerry laid out six points or parameters for reaching a comprehensive peace agreement: there must be secure borders and a viable, contiguous Palestinian state; there must be two states in which full and equal rights are guaranteed for all citizens; the refugee issue must be solved; Jerusalem must be the capital of both states and must not be divided; the occupation must end and Israel must be secure, while Palestine must be non-militarized; and there must be a final end to the conflict, with all further claims extinguished.
It must first be said that his formula closely resembles the Clinton Parameters of 2000; there is nothing terribly new in his proposals. Indeed, Clinton—exactly 16 years ago this week—was more detailed in his ideas. Why it was essential, or thought useful, to restate the Clinton Parameters somewhat more vaguely, with three weeks to go before this administration leaves office, is mysterious. But in several ways the Kerry proposal actually turns back the clock—and never in a way that helps the Jewish state. The refugee issue is the best example. George W. Bush said in 2004 that "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel." As the last five words made clear, there will be no "right of return" for Palestinians. Why could John Kerry not say this rather than being vague about it?
The administration also turned back the clock by agreeing that all settlements violate international law, which will surely make it harder for the Israelis to argue that they have a right to keep some in any negotiated final deal. The previous U.S. position, in the Bush years, had been that expanding the settlements is unhelpful—a much less prejudicial formulation to the Israeli position. Here it might be added that the second of Kerry's parameters, about equal rights for all citizens, was in essence a calumny against Israel. Israel is a democracy that guarantees the rights of Israeli Arabs, who have 13 representatives in the 120-member Knesset. Its court system protects them; its press is free; its Christian population is growing. The Palestinian Authority has held no national elections since 2006, and there is growing repression of freedom of speech and press. Kerry did not see any reason to mention this while casting aspersions on Israel. The subject of Israeli Arab citizens has no place whatsoever in discussions of a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, and Kerry's allusion to it was unfair and wrong.
Kerry also treated Israel unfairly in precisely the manner Obama did in his 2009 Cairo speech by equating completely unequal things in a way that defies common morality. In Obama's speech, he notoriously spoke of the Holocaust and then said, "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered…."—as if the Israeli occupation of the West Bank were the moral equivalent of Nazi genocide. Kerry in his remarks denounced terrorism and said "The most recent wave of Palestinian violence has included hundreds of terrorist attacks in the past year, including stabbings, shootings, vehicular attacks and bombings…" He noted that Palestinian leaders fail to condemn terrorist attacks and name public squares after terrorists. But he then added that "at the same time" (just as Obama said "on the other hand") the number of settlers is rising. So once again the administration presents building homes in the West Bank and terrorist acts as morally equivalent.
But the matter that most clearly shows that the parties are very far apart and that a peace deal is not at all close is Jerusalem. Kerry proposed that they share an undivided city that is the capital of both countries. How exactly does that work, in reality? He gave no clue. He closed his speech with a predictable reference to his and Obama's attendance at the funeral of Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, but he did not note the infamous incident to which it led. Obama's eulogy was released by the White House with the dateline "Jerusalem, Israel" but then corrected: a line was drawn through the word "Israel." It seems Kerry and the Obama administration were and are unwilling to state in which country Peres is buried.
Kerry stated that the U.N. resolution last week, which called Israeli construction of homes in East Jerusalem "a flagrant violation under international law," was nothing new and had always been the American position. And this in no manner prejudges negotiations about the final status of Jerusalem, he added. But that's precisely the point: The United States is saying that Israel has no right to the Western Wall and must negotiate for it.
Last week, the City of David archeological site in Jerusalem unveiled a restored 2,000-year-old road leading to the Western Wall. The road is about 150 feet long and was built near the Herodian Pool of Siloam, where worshippers cleansed themselves before walking up to the Temple. The pool is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of St. John, and the road begins just south of the City of David and rises to the foot of the Western Wall's Robinson's Arch. But don't worry: the Israelis can try to negotiate for control of this location with the PLO, and the United States will not do anything to suggest that Israel should have sovereignty over it—or for that matter over the Western Wall itself.
Kerry concluded his speech by stating that "Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to make the difficult choices for peace." That is certainly true, but the chances that this will happen are diminished when an administration places no real pressure on the Palestinian side and endorses their recourse to the United Nations while they refuse face-to-face negotiations. Kerry's 70-minute apologia pro vita suafound no space to mention that twice, in 2000 and 2008, Israel made serious peace offers, but both times the Palestinians rejected them. He did not note that the Obama administration had tried and failed for eight years to get the Palestinians into serious negotiations—and that he himself had failed to move the Palestinian president into any serious effort at peace. He was left to explain and explain again why he had achieved nothing and why the administration had in the end, to use Daniel P. Moynihan's great phrase, "joined the jackals" at the United Nations. There was a certain pathos to the speech, especially as it was Kerry's last. He did not mean Israel any harm, and called it "a special country I immediately admired and soon grew to love." But harm he did—and if he cannot understand this, Israelis can.