John Kerry devoted his first year as secretary of state to a passionate, relentless, exhausting, and ultimately failed quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace, so it’s not surprising he’d dedicate a swan song speech to laying out his last-ditch hope for two states in peace and security.
Kerry’s speech on Wednesday was a vigorous, rational defense of US policy to Israel and an argument for six well-established, bipartisan principles to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it comes at an inopportune time, amid bitter recriminations over President Barack Obama’s Mideast policy. How much impact Kerry’s parameters for peace — however reasonable — can have so late in an administration soon to be replaced by its polar opposite is another question.
Kerry’s tough love message to America’s unshakeable ally was that the only way to preserve Israel’s future as both a Jewish state and a democratic one is through peace with a Palestinian state next door. Kerry called for two states based on the 1967 borders with mutually-agreed land swaps, a dual capital in Jerusalem, a resolution of refugee issues and claims, security for Israel, and an end to occupation.
David Makovsky, a former Middle East peace negotiator who worked for Kerry, believes the secretary is trying to “save Israel from itself. If it’s going to preserve its Zionist and democratic character, it needs” peace with a Palestinian state, Makovsky says.
The critique by some that Kerry’s speech harms the peace process seems silly, considering the peace process is at death’s door. But Kerry’s heartfelt call to revive it and his warning that settlements imperil the future of the Jewish state may be drowned out by a Greek chorus of those who share Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wrongheaded view that this administration is anti-Israel.
Netanyahu has made no secret of his visceral antipathy for Obama over the president’s opposition to settlements and support for a nuclear deal with Iran. The Israeli leader was joined by Donald Trump, American conservatives, and some Jewish Democrats in Congress who savaged his decision not to veto a UN resolution last week calling on Israel to stop settlements in “occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.” Lost in the din was the fact that Obama never before permitted a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel, whereas past Republican and Democratic presidents allowed many — 21 under Ronald Reagan alone, according to the Jerusalem Post.
There’s an outside chance Kerry’s principles (which are a lot like those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) might have legs. Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who advised Special Envoy for Mideast Peace George Mitchell, says the international community could adopt Kerry’s ideas either in a UN resolution or at a peace conference in Paris on Jan. 15. (Israel has said it’s boycotting the Paris talks, which doesn’t bode well.) A danger of setting out American principles, of course, is that when a proposed end state is on the table before negotiations even start, both sides can stubbornly dig in their heels. Then again, it doesn’t help if no one promotes a solution.
Frankly, there’s never an opportune time to tell a well-intentioned but painful truth to a close friend. Considering he’s out in three weeks, there was no time but the present for Kerry to give one last shot.
As someone who was on his plane often, I saw Kerry’s dogged efforts to bring the sides together. But I wonder if a grand bargain isn’t the answer. Makovsky points out that Clinton, Bush, and Obama tried and failed to solve all the issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at once.
As much as any baseball fan, Kerry knows that when you try to hit a home run, you often strike out. But if the next secretary or the international community is willing to pick up the ball, there might be time for singles and doubles in whatever innings may be left for the peace process.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.