Kerry’s Eureka Moment on Israel and Palestine

It has been a bizarre week for US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 23 December, the Obama administration narrowly avoided becoming the first since Harry Truman’s to leave office without a single United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israel to its credit. Washington has spent the past eight years shielding what John Kerry on 28 December called ‘the most right-wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements’ from international scrutiny.

As the United States neither supported nor vetoed Resolution 2334, the Security Council unanimously confirmed that all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute ‘a flagrant violation under international law’. It was a rare victory for an international community that has been consistently thwarted by Barack Obama’s indulgence of Binyamin Netanyahu’s appetite for Palestinian land.

The Security Council additionally called on member states ‘to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967’. With that single phrase, half a century of Israeli efforts to normalise the occupation by way of countless faits accomplis and legitimise its presence beyond the Green Line vanished.

It is unlikely that those who, unlike the US, voted for the resolution will ignore it, especially since Netanyahu responded by petulantly announcing that his government would continue to violate the ban on settlement expansion, and Donald Trump is preparing to douse the fire with gasoline.

Then, on 28 December, Kerry delivered a seventy-minute address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all its obligatory political correctness, replete with condemnations of Palestinians for refusing to be passively and silently occupied, it included the harshest words directed at Israel by a US secretary of state since James Baker in 1990 questioned its willingness to make peace with the Palestinians. To his credit, Kerry openly used the emotive phrase ‘separate but unequal’ – albeit to describe a dystopian future rather than the very real present – and, in an apparent first for a serving US official, referred to the nakba and explained that it is Palestinian for ‘catastrophe’.

But where Baker demonstrated seriousness of purpose by reducing the flow of American aid to Israel and effectively forcing Yitzhak Shamir into retirement, Kerry bragged about his administration’s unprecedented generosity to ‘the most right wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements’. Attempting to sound more like an interested spectator than the chief diplomat of the state whose acts of commission and omission over the past half century have perpetuated the crisis, he resorted to the tired saw that Washington cannot want peace more than the occupiers it enables or the occupied who don’t have a choice in the matter.

Kerry concluded by enumerating six principles that Washington believes should guide the search for peace. They are broadly consistent with the long-standing US interpretation of a two-state settlement, even if they include an update here and an elaboration there. Which raises three questions.

Since there is effectively nothing new in Kerry’s principles, and Israel’s attitude towards them must have been known to him since his ‘first trip to Israel as a young senator in 1986’ about which he waxed so sentimentally, why did he do nothing to force ‘the most right wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements’ to accept them during the past four years, and refrain from criticising the government that rejected them until the final days of his tenure?

Why were we instead forced to put up with the charade of negotiations he sponsored, whose only purpose was as diplomatic cover for the further expansion of illegal settlements which according to Kerry himself not only ‘have nothing to do with Israel’s security’ but are there for the express purpose of turning the occupied territories into ‘small parcels that could never constitute a real state’?

If, on the contrary, Kerry’s eureka moment arrived only this Christmas, and he felt the need to speak out in order to preserve the two-state framework from the assaults not only of Israel’s extremists but also of those in America waiting in the wings to detonate America’s Middle East diplomacy, why refrain from the obvious step of recognising Palestinian statehood?

The article originally appeared on the London Review of Books.