Diana Buttu

Kerry describes a reality that Palestinians are living

A partial view of the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Listening to Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech laying out the Obama administration’s parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, I expected to hear an unabashed defense of Israel, in line with President Obama’s approach since assuming office eight years ago. Despite the claims of his detractors, President Obama has been the most pro-Israel president in US history. He has protected Israel diplomatically in the face of three brutal bombing campaigns on tiny, besieged Gaza; recently gave Israel the largest military aid package in US history and, until last week, failed to take any concrete action to stop Israel’s building of Jewish settlements. As a result, I expected Kerry to simply repeat the same tropes to which we have become accustomed. But Kerry’s speech was not that, which is why his conclusions are all the more troubling.

Kerry confirmed that Israel’s settlements are illegal; that they are not constructed for Israel’s security but rather make Israel less secure. It was heartening to hear Kerry talk about Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes, its theft of Palestinian land for settlements, and its refusal to allow Palestinians to build or live freely on their own land. He spoke of checkpoints and occupation. In short, Kerry described a reality that Palestinians have lived for 50 years: apartheid.

Yet, even if realized, Kerry’s principles for a future peace will not end Israeli apartheid, but instead reward and perpetuate it. Take, for example, his statement that future borders must “reflect practical realities on the ground.” Sounds fair, but these “practical realities,” resulting from decades of Israeli settlement construction, ensure that a Palestinian state will never be contiguous but will be, in Kerry’s own words, a “Swiss cheese” statelet surrounded and dominated by Israel.


Although Palestinians have twice officially recognized Israel, by further demanding that we recognize it as a “Jewish state,” Kerry asks Palestinians to endorse the permanent second class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population, who are already subject to scores of discriminatory laws that privilege Jewish citizens. And by stipulating that any solution for Palestinian refugees must not affect the “fundamental character of Israel,” Kerry negates our internationally recognized right to return to our homeland so that Israel can maintain a Jewish majority. In short, Palestinians are required to relinquish their rights to accommodate Israel’s wrongs.

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The biggest flaw in Kerry’s parameters is the demand that the two sides return to a negotiating table tilted heavily in Israel’s favor. As a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, I can attest to the futility of bilateral negotiations overseen by Israel’s closest ally, the United States. Countless rounds of negotiations were wasted as Israeli leaders made clear that they would never dismantle the settlements or end the occupation. Demanding that Palestinians living under military rule negotiate with their occupier is akin to demanding that a battered spouse negotiate an end to their suffering with their abusers, with the abuser’s best friend mediating. More than 20 years of a US-sponsored bilateral negotiations process has failed, and no level of ill-defined parameters will change this structural flaw.

President Obama had eight years to correct this situation, but like presidents Clinton and Bush before him, chose to pass the buck to his successor. With the surprise victory of President-elect Donald Trump, whose incoming administration and its close ties to Israel’s hard right and the settlement movement threaten to put the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, President Obama’s approval of Kerry’s speech was also no doubt in part an effort to salvage his own legacy in the region.

It is now clear for all to see that Israel’s intention is to permanently control the occupied territories without granting Palestinians living there citizenship or equal rights. While Israeli leaders all proclaim that they want “peace,” no Israeli prime minister has ever stopped expanding settlements. So deeply rooted is Israel’s settlement enterprise that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has been desperately promoting a bill to stop the removal of so-called “outposts” (nascent settlements built without official approval), which are illegal even according to Israeli law and which Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered dismantled. As part of his effort to maintain the support of Israel’s extreme right, Netanyahu has promised millions of dollars to settlers and alternative stolen Palestinian West Bank land upon which they can build, while also threatening to destroy Palestinian homes at an accelerated rate. When the UN Security Council adopted its recent resolution condemning settlements as illegal and a major obstacle to peace, Israeli leaders and their supporters lashed out at the US and international community, and new settlement units were announced even as Kerry spoke.

While Kerry and Obama seek to preserve a two-state “solution,” the time for it has long passed. Kerry himself declared — nearly four years ago — that it only had one or two years before it was finished. Ultimately, it ended with the establishment of Israel’s first settlements and the subsequent 50-year failure of the international community to challenge them. And, while Kerry is correct to be appalled by the settlers’ vision of “one state,” in which Palestinians face expulsion or permanent subjugation, there is another alternative — that of one person, one vote and equality for all, regardless of religion or race.


Whether following a one- or two-state framework, for a true and lasting peace to be achieved Israel must face real consequences, including sanctions, for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom and rights. For what Israel has learned over the decades, contrary to what Kerry argues, is that settlements are compatible with peace, or at least its illusion, as long as the US and others continue to support Israel financially, militarily and diplomatically. Israel must be finally made to choose between its apartheid policies and its acceptance in the international community, as occurred with South Africa.

Barring the imposition of tangible consequences for Israel’s illegal conduct, the apartheid that Kerry and others fear will further entrench itself and, like occurred in South Africa, the United States will be forever stained for standing on the wrong side of history.

Diana Buttu is a Palestinian lawyer and analyst. She previously served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000-2005 and later worked for President Mahmoud Abbas. She is a former fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.