At the risk of appearing to pile-on, here’s a criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s jeremiad this week about Israel’s record in Middle East diplomacy you haven’t read yet: The speech once again makes clear that the man who’s dubbed “America’s Chief Diplomat” has no clue as to what determines the outcome of a negotiation.
I’ve been making such arguments for years. The gist is that Kerry – and his boss in the Oval Office, and most of the foreign policy establishment in the United States and the rest of the western world – have been (unwittingly, I assume) making an Israel-Palestinian peace less, not more likely with the approach they’ve been using literally since the Six-Day War in 1967. Their fundamental mistake has been seeking to award the Palestinians at the bargaining table what they have no hope of winning on the battlefield or through any other actual or conceivable developments on the ground. But since outside powers have never been able to deliver on this implicit promise in any way, the result consistently has been enabling Palestinian obstinacy that gets more self-defeating every year.
What stands out about Kerry’s speech, and the entire Obama administration approach, has been misunderstanding the role played in Middle East diplomacy by Israel’s settlements in territories it was won militarily since 1967. The Secretary of State repeated the view that much settlement activity represents an “obstacle to peace.”
Previous American administrations have stated more or less the same position – as U.S. UN Ambassador Samantha Power has stated. But that consistency doesn’t made such views any less rear-end backward. In fact, if not for the meddling of outside powers, the settlements would have been likely to produce reasonable Palestinian offers of compromise. For every bit of land that comes under Israeli control makes whatever state the Palestinians could possibly hope to create that much weaker, smaller, and less viable. Without the false hopes held out by American and other foreign diplomats, the Palestinian leadership could have experienced no stronger incentive to bargain realistically – and therefore seriously.
Ironically, Kerry’s detailed indictment of Israeli policy on this front does an excellent job of detailing just what the Palestinians have lost – and keep losing:
>“[T]here are over 80 settlements east of the separation barrier, many located in places that would make a continuous – a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Does anyone seriously think that if they just stay where they are you could still have a viable Palestinian state?”
>Crucial decisions about the West Bank are “being made unilaterally by the Israeli Government, without consultation, without the consent of the Palestinians, and without granting the Palestinians a reciprocal right to build in what will be, by most accounts, part of Palestine.”
>“[I]t’s not just a question of the overall amount of land available in the West Bank. It’s whether the land can be connected or it’s broken up into small parcels, like a Swiss cheese, that could never constitute a real state. The more outposts that are built, the more the settlements expand, the less possible it is to create a contiguous state.”
>“[A] settlement is not just the land that it’s on, it’s also what the location does to the movement of people, what it does to the ability of a road to connect people, one community to another, what it does to the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction.”
>“Today, the 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C – much of which was supposed to be transferred to Palestinian control long ago under the Oslo Accords – much of it is effectively off limits to Palestinian development.”
>“If the occupation becomes permanent, over the time the Palestinian Authority could simply dissolve, turn over all the administrative and security responsibilities to the Israelis.”
In fairness to Kerry – and the viewpoint he represents – he is convinced that a West Bank seized in this way would be unsustainable for Israel:
“[I]f there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank, with no real political rights, separate legal, education, and transportation systems, vast income disparities, under a permanent military occupation that deprives them of the most basic freedoms. Separate and unequal is what you would have. And nobody can explain how that works. Would an Israeli accept living that way? Would an American accept living that way? Will the world accept it?…Who would administer the schools and hospitals and on what basis? Does Israel want to pay for the billions of dollars of lost international assistance that the Palestinian Authority now receives? Would the Israel Defense Force police the streets of every single Palestinian city and town?
“How would Israel respond to a growing civil rights movement from Palestinians, demanding a right to vote, or widespread protests and unrest across the West Bank? How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its democratic ideals? How does the U.S. continue to defend that and still live up to our own democratic ideals?”
And these are clearly serious questions for Israelis. But what Kerry and so many others have completely missed is that:
(a) It’s entirely reasonable so far from an Israeli standpoint to assume that even this likely scenario is safer and thus vastly more acceptable than the one flowing from the establishment of the kind of Palestinian state – led by the current generation of Palestinian leadership; and (much more important)
(b) These are far more serious – indeed, national life and death – questions for the Palestinians. Moreover, the answers they can realistically hope for are far worse – and worsening all the time.
President-elect Trump has indicated his interest in trying to end the conflict between Israelis and their Arab neighbors – and his confidence that he can succeed. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’s right. But his career has demonstrated some skill at hands-on negotiation. And he does know a thing or two about the importance of real estate.