On the eve of US Secretary of State’s peace speech on 28 December, US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” It wasn’t that fast, because Kerry droned on for 70 minutes. Here are a few takeaways from the speech.
1. It was way too long
Boredom set in after only forty minutes. It was as if Kerry was stuck in a loop, repeated himself over and over. His presentation had many elements of a typical John Kerry or Barack Obama lecture: it tried to provide something for both sides; and it included personal anecdotes. It is as if these speeches are written by a machine. The language is always hollow, general and mundane.
2. It felt like a prosecuting attorney giving a closing argument
When John Kerry began to give details about Israel’s actions in the West Bank, the number of Jewish communities, the number of “settlers,” the number of new homes, and the percent of it taken by Israel, it felt like he was trying to prove how correct he and the US administration have been for eight years. But why so much detail? Why wait until just weeks before a new administration to give such a speech? Was he setting up some kind of initiative after Obama leaves office?
Once again, Kerry defended the need for two states. But to whom was he making his argument? For better or worse, the world already agrees that two states is the desired outcome. Supposedly, most Palestinians and Israelis also support two states.
So, case closed?
Even CNN thought that “going out of office on Israeli settlements,” was an odd thing for the Obama administration when Syria was in ruins and Yemen was at war. In short, Washington insiders and commentators all think Kerry’s speech and the Obama administration's sudden focus on settlements, and after eight years of failure, is strange. Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat, said that Trump's administration is likely walk away from all of the speech’s key points.
Was one objective of Kerry's to set up some kind of initiative after Barack Obama leaves office? As only viable leader of the Democratic party - half of all Americans - was it a kind of battleplan for Obama and his galvanized anti-Trump constituents that uses Israel and the Palestinians as a foil?
3. We have heard it all before
Kerry’s speech began by discussing a “just and lasting peace,” which is a line that often appears in the UN resolutions. It also appears in the Oslo Accords.
Kerry presented himself as a friend of Israel but spoke like a lover trying to explain his actions to an unhappy partner. He couldn’t “stand idly by” and he would be “derelict in duty” by not saying anything.
Heard it before: “The two state solution is in serious jeopardy.”
This is the same language used by Obama in Jerusalem in 2013. Years ago articles were already saying that “one state” was the Obama legacy. In 2015 the US State Department was already talking about the “one state” risk.
When Kerry speaks about “seemingly endless occupation” and “cementing one state reality that most people do not want,” he’s using talking points that go back decades.
Heard it before: “We know what is best for Israel”
One of the talking points of Kerry and Obama has often been that they have Israel’s best interests at heart. “We are trying to preserve a Jewish state,” Kerry said. He looked back to 19th century Zionism and the dreams of a Jewish state. Obama said in May 2015: “I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.”
Heard it before: “We give you money, so do what we say”
Kerry raised the issue of military aid to Israel, claiming that this US administration had been the best friend of Israel. He referenced the $38 billion financing for Israel. He didn’t mention the two F-35s that just landed in Israel, but he might as well have. He spoke here like a father who gives presents to his kid and expects the kid to behave. “More than half of entire global military financing goes to Israel,” Kerry claimed.
That is only half true. In fact, the money that comes to Israel - all of it - is spent in US defense companies, benefiting the US economy. So yes, it "goes to Israel," and then it all comes back to the USA.
Kerry's recipe for patronizing Israel includes dashes of orientalism and “white man’s burden.” We know what is best, is the message; we gave you money, now do what we say.
4. Stories and fluff
Kerry’s speech included at least 40 minutes of fluff. It’s nice he’s been to Masada and Sderot and other places. It’s nice that he cares about the 1.8 million people of Gaza. It's nice that he is angry about Palestinian websites that glorify killing Israelis. But eight years on, most of this was wasted breath. It may be good for Kerry's memoirs. But now, and without practical steps to be taken, what’s the point? For eight years, the US did nothing for Gaza and nothing about their bloody websites. So what is the plan now?
5. At least the cheese metaphor was new
Kerry’s strongest words were aimed at Israel’s Jewish communities built outside Jerusalem and over the 1967 Green Line. He said that 270,000 Jews had moved to these communities since 1993; that 20 to 30,000 had moved there in the last eight years; that “more and more” were moving to “Palestinian areas.” He claimed the current map of Palestinian Authority areas, where they have some autonomy, was like “Swiss cheese.” He said that Israel was “chipping away” at Palestinian statehood.
In Cairo, in 2009, Obama said the same thing: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Eight years later, same song, different singer.
At least the Swiss cheese metaphor was new.
6. Segregation days in the USA
Kerry’s use of “separate but equal” and “segregation” and “civil rights” were obvious nods to the US history of civil rights struggles.
In the 1950s and 1960s when Kerry was in his twenties, the US went through an epic battle to remove segregation from the Old South. Kerry is from the northeast, but his knowledge of the era was bolstered by his anti-Vietnam activism after serving in the military. It is in this context that he speaks about American values and Israel’s democracy. His real message is that, in spite of Israel's current status as a democratic Jewish state in which 2 million non-Jews, mostly Arab Muslims, have full citizenship, Israel is on its way to becoming a non-democratic Jewish state.
7. A casserole of old plans
Kerry's diagnosis is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is ill. There is deep mistrust, he said. Negotiations have not progressed. Nothing has worked. So what does he propose? Call it a casserole of other failed plans. It is a recipe that includes almost all the leftovers in the refrigerator: everythig since the 1980s along with portions from 1967, and UN Resolution 242.
And, of course, Oslo.
In the Oslo Accords, it said “interim self-government arrangements contained in this Agreement are an integral part of the whole peace process, that the negotiations on the permanent status, that will start as soon as possible but not later than May 4, 1996, will lead to the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and that the Interim Agreement shall settle all the issues of the interim period and that no such issues will be deferred to the agenda of the permanent status negotiations.”
Kerry basically went down the list of the same problems from 1993. In Oslo they were called “issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, specified military locations, Palestinian refugees, borders, foreign relations and Israelis.”
Kerry’s six principals: There will be borders based on 1967 line; those borders will include land swaps; there will be two states; there will be assistance for refugees; Jerusalem will be a shared capital for both states; Israel's security will remain paramount.
There is nothing new in Kerry's casserole. It is a hodgepodge of leftovers that did not digest the first time they were served.
8. If Israel makes peace, it can help Arab states fight Iran
Kerry tried to hold a carrot in front of Israel. Noting the rise of Iran in the region and the threat it also poses to Arab states, Kerry argued that Israel has a unique opportunity to make peace with those states. All that's standing in the way is lack of peace with the Palestinians. Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States were mentioned as potential partners. Iran is “destabilizing” these states, Kerry said. Consequently, they are ready for a “fundamentally different relationship.”
The irony is that Kerry was the main driver of the Iran deal. So now he has seen the light? More likely, he speaks with two mouths, one mouth for Iran and the great deal, and another mouth for Arab states destabilized by the deal.
Another irony is Kerry’s failed diplomacy to stabilize Syria, about matter about which I have extensively written.
For decades, Arab states have been telling the West that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the source of the region’s problems, and that not resolving it was leading to radicalism and extremism.
But it is an argument that simply does not wash. Osama Bin Laden’s extremism, ISIS and other Jihadist movements had nothing to do with Israel and Palestine. Instead, they had everything to do with issues in Saudi Arabia, the US invasion of Iraq, Algeria’s civil war, Chechnya and Afghanistan, and, most recently, the Syrian conflict.
The reality is that in many ways anti-Iran Arab states need Israel more than Israel needs them.
Jordan and the Gulf States are facing problems that could topple their governments. It is in their interests to work with Israel - and they already do, albeit quietly on the part of Gulf States.
The reality is, when two states share a common enemy, even without recognition or a formal agreement, they often work together anyway. There is no evidence that the Jordanian or Egyptian peace agreement Israel has signed made Jordanians or Egyptians like Israel or Israelis or Jews anymore than they did prior to peace. In fact, surveys show that anti-Israel views are just as robust there as in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. Anti-semitism, for instance is far lower in Iran than among most of Israel’s neighbors. Have peace treaties and de facto alliances with these states helped Israel? A little, yes. But in fact, today these countries need Israel more than Israel needs them. For them, and in spite of rhetoric to the contrary, Palestinians are not their priority.
9. “We cannot do nothing”
The speech concluded with an admonition to justify its 70 minute drone. “We cannot do nothing.” But that is precisely what the Obama administration has done.
Obama's administration has been long on thinking but short on action. In Syria, it did very little. It’s most robust action has been to aid Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Still, it has never deviated from US core policy which, for example, supports Iraq’s Baghdad government and refuses to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Obama's administration trapped itself, and tried to trap Israel, into borders from the 1920s along with ideas from the 1950s and 1990s. It is a trap, or course, from which there is no escape because the State Department never changes. Like an oil tanker, it just steams along, expecting others get out of the way.
For his part, Kerry wants a legacy, but he said nothing new, let alone revolutionary. He reiterated talking points that have been said many times, in many ways, and by many different people.
One of Kerry's objectives was justification for the US decision to not veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334. By doing so, and undercover of the Christmas holiday, it allowed the resolution to pass. Why? In this matter, at least, Kerry's voice was clear: Israel didn’t listen to our advice; we told it we would do this if it did not change its policy; it did not change its policy; and so, we did it.
Granted, Israel has tried to outlast and slow-play the Obama administration. For now, Jerusalem's calculation is that the status quo is its only option and that, in time, another form of resolution will develop. It is also true that, for its part, a large portion of Israel's right wing does not believe, or no longer believes, there should be a Palestinian state.
On the other hand, US policy has given the Palestinians veto power over any negotiations for peace, not to mention its terms. This is why the US embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Because US policy says that the Palestinians have to approve “final status” agreements about Jerusalem, and because the Palestinians keep saying “no” to anything Israel suggests, the US has not moved its embassy or recognized any Israeli right to Jerusalem.
Militarily and economically, the Palestinians are weaker than Israel. But their power to say no, granted by the United States, gives them an upper hand that they are not about to relinquish.
Meanwhile Israel continues to build while Palestinians continue to veto any meaningful steps toward peace.
10. And John Kerry? His legacy is a speech that changes nothing.
Seth Frantzman is the op-ed editor for the Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @SFrantzman