Did U.S. State Department ignorance kill the peace process?

From Thursday’s Haaretz:

There’s been a great deal of noise surrounding Nahum Barnea’s interview in Yediot Aharonot with unnamed U.S. officials closely involved with John Kerry’s peace efforts. “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure,” the diplomats said, “but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” Cue the sturm und drang.

Of course, sturm und drang-inducing interviews aren’t given on the fly (anonymous or not). America doesn’t publicly criticize an ally unless the very public-ness is, itself, a message. It’s safe to assume that the officials in question didn’t say anything they didn’t mean to say – not even the bits that were shockingly ignorant.

And I quote: “We didn’t realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government. We didn’t realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.… We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale.”

I’m sorry – what? You “didn’t realize” settlement construction was being used to sabotage talks? You didn’t know that settlement building “is also about expropriating land on a large scale”?

There is simply no excuse – none, nothing – for this kind of ignorance among American officials. To tell one of Israel’s leading journalists that they didn’t see any of this coming, that they only realized the enormity of the truth “after talks blew up,” is to admit to an obliviousness that borders on criminal.

To keep reading, please click here.

Syria – I don’t know.

The US is clearly going to be taking some action against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. I’ve been following events very closely, but haven’t written about it (other than on Twitter, which is where the rough draft of history is written now, frankly) because I have neither time nor emotional bandwidth. I’ll just say a little bit here, but mostly, I wanted to provide some very, very useful (and easily understood) links.

Let me start by saying that there are genuinely no good options on the table. If the US had intervened early in the war, before it became a full-fledged civil conflict, maybe that could have slowed the carnage and led to something reasonable to replace the current regime. But that’s an enormous maybe, I’m not sure what that “intervention” could have or would have looked like, it would have been tremendously destabilizing to the rest of the region (which is likely why it never happened), and it would have cost the American people, as well. But mostly it didn’t happen, so we’ll never know.

So, having said that, I lean toward supporting military action, which I presume will mean damaging Assad’s capacity to carry out chemical weapons attacks in the future. I believe that doing nothing is the worst of several terrible options, because anything that strengthen’s Assad’s hand (which doing nothing would do) can only lead to greater brutality and the entrenchment of that brutality, not to mention strengthening the hands of other powers not known for their gentle natures: The hardliners in Iran (vs. the current Iranian President – you can read a little bit about divisions in Iran by clicking here), Hezbollah, Russia, etc.

I am painfully aware that such action will neither end the civil war nor unseat Assad, and that Syrian civilians may well die as a result. But a) Syrian civilians are already being mowed down daily as if in a threshing field, b) doing even this little bit of damage is also likely (in some way that we’ll never truly be able to measure) to save lives, and c) it’s possible that such activity could have a domino effect on Assad’s capacity to fight at all. On this last point, I’m genuinely just crossing my fingers, because adding chaos to chaos always produces new chaos — but we can never be sure ahead of time if it will be the chaos we want.

But aside from that, I also agree with Secretary of State Kerry that “it matters here if nothing is done.”

It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

I also believe, and I may never be able to prove it, that it matters in a grand, human sense that when people are being slaughtered, someone is willing to do something for them. There is so little we can do — I believe, in some very inchoate way, that it matters that we at the very least try to stand between the Syrian people and chemical weapons.

But mostly, I don’t know. All possible options are bad, all will have consequences we cannot foresee, all will lead to more death and more misery for someone. My only hope is that the limited assault that I believe the Administration is contemplating will ultimately mean that things will be less bad than they might have been. We will likely never know for sure. I am very glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

Now for those resources:

  1. Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask – Max Fisher in the Washington Post (the “nine questions” format is a recurrent thing he does, and they’re always excellent)
  2. The U.S. does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them – also by Max Fisher. I believe that combining any of these with whatever the Administration has planned would be the better part of wisdom, particularly as concerns aid to the refugees and the countries taking them in. None will end the misery, but all stand a good chance of ameliorating the misery.
  3. The war after the war in Syria – by Joshua Foust, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. Here he discusses who the rebels actually are, and the significance of some apparent splintering in the regime. The reality is that even if Assad disappeared tomorrow, the mayhem would still continue for quite some time.

Finally, a side-note on Iran: Several things have happened lately that look an awful lot to me like signs of a back channel between Tehran and Washington, including (but not limited to) the CIA admission that it was behind the 1953 coup that removed Iran’s only democratically elected leader from office and the CIA admission (coming less than a week after the earlier admission) that it helped Saddam Hussein attack Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s. These are both things that were widely known, but have never been admitted before.

Bearing in mind all the struggles that the US and Iran have had surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an issue that the Obama White House seems to want to actually resolve, I believe that the Administration has been trying for some time to quitely improve Washington-Tehran communication — now, add to that the fact that the Iran-Syria relationship is vital to both countries (and to Hezbollah, which serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon), and I believe that whatever back channels we have with Iran have been working overtime this week. (Note also that the admission re: the CIA’s assistance to Iraq came after Assad attacked the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons — again, that piece I mentioned above re: divisions in Iran is useful here).

Look at that, this wasn’t short at all. It’s very hard to write short about all this stuff, even when your bottom line is “I don’t know.” At any rate, to quote my sister: More will be revealed.

It’ll be awful, but at some point, at least we’ll know what it is.


PS For running updates on what’s unfolding, James Miller is doing a great job on Twitter.

UPDATE If you want to watch President Obama’s brief comments on the situation, you can click here. “A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.”

In memory of the victims of murderers just sent home.

Morris “Moshe” Eisenstadt was born in Brooklyn in 1914; he immigrated to Israel late in life, and volunteered for many years at a hospital in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Eisenstadt was sitting on a park bench reading a book when Ibrahim Salem Ali al-Rai attacked and killed him with an axe in 1994. He was 79 years old.

Isaac Rotenberg was born in Poland in 1927. In the course of the Holocaust he was sent to the Sobibor death camp, but managed to escape in 1943 when Sobibor’s inmates rose up against the Nazis. Rotenberg ultimately fought the German army with the Partisans and, after arriving in Israel, worked in construction. He was on his knees repairing a floor when Salem Ali Atiyeh Abu-Musa and another assailant attacked and killed him with axes in 1994. He was 67.

Annie Ley came from France as a tourist in 1991; Mohammed Ahmed Khaled Asakreh stabbed her to death in Bethlehem, reportedly as she ate in the restaurant at which he worked. Ley was 64. Her murderer, along with al-Rai, Abu-Musa, and 23 other prisoners were released from prison by Israel earlier this week, as a good will gesture to its Palestinian negotiating partners.

Each of these attacks happened when I lived in Israel, and many others as well. I wasn’t able to fully grasp the horror at the time, and I’m not able to do so now. I don’t understand what it takes to pick up an axe and murder an old man on a park bench, any more than I understand what it takes to wrap oneself in explosives and rip a crowded bus to bloody shreds.

I understand that this is a war. When soldiers are killed, I mourn, but at least I understand the mechanism at hand: We kill their combatants, they kill ours. Parents remember nothing but chubby cheeks and expressions of love; enemies remember nothing but the other side’s willingness to kill me and mine.

I also understand that me and mine have killed a wildly disproportionate number of them and theirs, many of them non-combatants, at least a third of them minors. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish can tell you about the three daughters and a niece he lost when an Israeli tank targeted his Gaza home during Operation Cast Lead; a shell ripped through a wall: “Schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap…. There was brain matter on the ceiling.” (And don’t tell me those deaths were “unintentional”—look Dr. Abuelaish in the eye, and tell him).

I believe that human beings can only make peace with their enemies. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will have to forgive, or at least look past, terrible acts and tremendous loss if we are ever to stop the cycle of violence. I believe that the release of terrorists who murdered wholly innocent people was the right thing to do, if it will genuinely bring us closer to the possibility of a lasting peace.

Israelis often fail to understand the importance of the issue. The Palestinian prisoner population is massive, and not all are held with as much justification as those who murder Holocaust survivors and French tourists. Israel has long used the collective and individual fates of these men (and a handful of women) as a bargaining chip, and it’s doing so again—not meting out justice, but rather issuing open-ended punishments unless and until the state decides it’s in its own best interest to do something else. Israelis tend to underestimate the resonance of all this for the Palestinian people; it might be worthwhile to consider how much effort we put into returning the bones of fallen soldiers to our borders. Many in the Arab nations see those soldiers in no better light than we see the Palestinians released on Wednesday—one can argue with that perception, but arguing won’t change the fact.

And, for all that—for all that I believe the prisoner release was justifiable and smart—I do not believe that we are free to dismiss what those men did. I do not believe that we are free to ignore any of the humanity that has spilled on the ground as we have fought, and fought, and fought, using each other’s bodies as the tools by which to achieve our various ends.

Morris Eisenstadt, Isaac Rotenberg, and Annie Ley, and all those like them, did not deserve to die in abject terror as murderous hands descended. They deserved to reach the end of their days in peace and comfort, surrounded by love and goodness. No matter what John Kerry achieves, the reality of those deaths cannot be reversed.

It was right to release the prisoners. And it is right to never forget what they cost us.

A note about names and biographical information: Much of the published information regarding the prisoner release is at least slightly inaccurate—many sources have misspelled names, and at least one Israeli outlet identified Morris Eisenstadt as “a soldier.” In an effort to be as accurate as possible, I have leaned on and cross-referenced Israeli governmental sources for event details, Haaretz for the English transliteration of Arabic names, and a variety of English-language sources for the English spelling of victims’ names. I remain unsure as to whether Eisenstadt went by “Morris” or “Moshe,” so I have included both.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

What role for AIPAC in the process?

aipacRon Kampeas reported on Thursday that AIPAC’s official endorsement of the U.S. push for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is (a) three sentences long, (b) buried on the organization’s website, and (c) appears to have been shared only with those who cared enough to seek it out. Yet back in June, AIPAC’s president gave John Kerry’s diplomacy a reportedly “hearty” endorsement in a meeting with U.S. Senators—and furthermore AIPAC was in the room when Kerry and Martin Indyk briefed American Jewish leaders on their progress, also on Thursday.

What this brings to mind for me is a different Kampeas story, from February: AIPAC’s failure to mention the conflict in its annual legislative agenda. Israel’s special relationship with America? Check. U.S. security aid to Israel? Check. Iran? Check. (Double-check, actually, as the topic of Iran took up two of the four slots on the agenda). The conflict that has defined and shaped Israel since its inception? Quietly buried in a panel discussion.

And of course, there’s this: Twenty years ago, when the Oslo Accords were the newest game in town, AIPAC was outright hostile to Rabin’s efforts, and actively worked to undermine them. In 2007, on the other hand, one of the organization’s biggest donors, Sheldon Adelson, abandoned ship over a letter calling for increased aid to the Palestinian Authority. And then there was AIPAC’s opposition to the modest (and Potemkin-esque) settlement freeze during Obama’s first term.

Which is to say: AIPAC has a pattern of opposing any movement that might promote an equitable peace, and getting slapped when it fails to do so sufficiently. It might be worth noting, in this context, that the Senators before whom president Michael Kassen heartily endorsed renewed peace talks were all Democrats; would his endorsement have carried the same heartiness if he had been standing in front of, say, House Republicans?

Probably not. Israel’s right is currently canvassing House Republicans in an effort to undo Kerry’s work, and not employing what one might call subtlety in the process: “When [Kerry] fails—and he will fail,” the JTA was told by the “foreign envoy” of Israel’s settler movement, “the fact that the Secretary of State of the United States failed will be noticed very clearly in Tehran and in Damascus and in Moscow and in Pyongyang.” Dani Dayan also told the press that he “would like Congress to explain to the State Department that this is a morally improper way to conduct diplomacy.”

Putting aside the question of whether or not elected U..S representatives ought to meet with an ally’s cut-rate, self-appointed diplomats as they work to make America’s own foreign policy goals unachievable; putting aside whether or not Dani Dayan should be in a position to tell the U.S. Congress what conversation to have with the US Department of State; putting aside who might have a better grasp of America’s best interests (Israeli settlers or U.S. generals)—it’s clear why AIPAC might feel a need to be circumspect about its endorsement, hearty or begrudging.

Which might, in fact, suit John Kerry just fine.

The Secretary of State has made it abundantly clear that he wants this whole process to be as drama-free as humanly possible. He’s made it abundantly clear that he wants no leaks, no rumors, and nothing that might give the naysayers a chance to pull the process down before it even gets to its feet. Having American Jewish leaders over to the White House a week before talks are meant to get underway was a very astute move, giving those leaders a slice of ownership in what Kerry’s doing, while possibly mollifying those who might support the Just Say No crowd. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: John Kerry knows a thing or two.

Whether or not AIPAC’s leaders have changed their spots and are suddenly on board with all that a two-state agreement will entail (national boundaries based on the 1967 borders; a shared Jerusalem; and a mutually-agreed resolution of the refugee issue) is still, clearly, up in the air. I rather doubt it myself.

But if John Kerry can keep AIPAC quiet, I don’t need it to shout support from the roof tops. Saying one thing while signaling another and then perhaps saying something else again is how many, many stakeholders will be playing things in the coming months, and AIPAC and its rejectionist backers have never represented this American-Israeli Jew in any way, shape, or form.

All I need from AIPAC is for it to not aid those who are trying to destroy what may well be Israel’s last chance for peace. Because my home and my people deserve that peace, and they really need it.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

The case for a less-guarded optimism.

John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portraitWe waited nearly an hour, and then it lasted for all of 16 minutes. John Kerry’s press conference with negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat was very like his shuttle diplomacy—a lot of waiting, a false beginning, and finally, one step forward, with very little information attached.

Here’s what we know: Formal negotiations will begin in the next two weeks, either in Israel or in the Palestinian territories; the parties have agreed that “all final status issues, core issues and other issues” are on the table, with the goal of ending claims against each other; the Arab League has reaffirmed its Peace Initiative, which offers an end to regional conflict in exchange for a two-state peace; the only person authorized to make statements on the process is the Secretary of State; the deadline is nine months from now.

Those last two points should make folks sit up a little straighter. One of the biggest mistakes made in the past has been to establish long, essentially open-ended timelines that allowed spoilers to do their work (whether via political maneuvering, or violence—suicide bombings, assassination, intifada, military incursions, etc), while also allowing Israel to deepen the occupation even as it sat at a go-nowhere negotiating table. One of the other biggest mistakes has been to let anyone and everyone run their mouths about it.

Violence can be carried out at any given time, but those who would maneuver and undermine need information (verifiable or wild rumor, it matters not) to do their work. They need to read tea-leaves, divine the intentions of all and sundry, and work their publics into a froth based on those efforts. By saying that the parties have agreed that he and he alone may be trusted, Kerry has nipped that in the bud. Solutions cannot be floated, threats cannot be implied, ideas cannot be run up flagpoles—and when all of that happens anyway (as all of it inevitably will), each side can point to Kerry and say: “Not us! He’s the one running the Comms office.”

So what Kerry has done is create both less space, and more space. Less space for jerking the process around for domestic consumption, more space for creativity and (dare I say it?) bold decision making. Less space in which terrible things can happen that might drain the peoples’ willingness to accept the process and its outcome, more space for the political cover anyone negotiating an end to decades of violence needs.

Then there’s the little fact that “all final status issues, core issues, and other issues” are on the table. The peace process has a history of front-loading Israel’s immediate needs while back-loading Palestinians’ long-term needs, and what winds up happening is that Israel’s security demands get met (more or less), while Palestinians are allowed to languish. By bringing everything up, right now, Kerry does an end run around that tradition, while also deftly avoiding any specifics. What about (final status issue) Jerusalem? “It’s on the table.” Has Netanyahu (core issue) agreed to ’67 borders? “On the table.” Has Abbas (other issue) agreed to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? “Have you seen our table?”

I’ve lately taken to describing my approach to Kerry’s efforts as one of guarded pessimism. I’ve been on this merry-go-round since 1993, and there’s nothing like two decades of resounding failure to make a person lose her hope—but like Kerry himself, I believe that outright skepticism is a luxury that we can’t afford.

The Secretary of State clearly knows what he’s up against, and as a veteran of the Senate, it seems he also has some skill negotiating delicate matters among folks who loathe each other. Finally, and I know this is a small thing but it speaks volumes to me: Kerry’s actually been to Gaza. Unlike the vast majority of American leaders who bloviate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, John Kerry made the politically unpopular choice to travel across the gin the wake of Israel’s 2008/2009 Gaza War to witness what the conflict has meant, not only for Israelis, but for Palestinians, too.

John Kerry means business, and though their comments were brief, it seems that Livni and Erekat also mean business. Mahmoud Abbas has supported a two-state solution since 1977; Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to make it sound like maybe he’s not as opposed as he used to be. President Obama went out of his way this morning to make it clear that he, too, means business.

Everyone involved has their reasons for being involved, and some of those reasons are petty. The ways in which the whole thing could fall apart are myriad. History gives us very little reason to hope.

But in the wake of this morning’s press conference, my pessimism is less guarded* than it was. Let’s see what you can do, Mr. Secretary. Next April would be a lovely time to re-write the future.

*Many hours after writing this line, I realized that I’d been too clever by half — I am more guarded in my pessimism, because I am less pessimistic. And any line that requires that many mental somersaults has not been well constructed and dang if I don’t wish I’d written it differently! Alas.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Kerry’s talks: Diplomatic snafu or carefully orchestrated mess?

I would also recommend that you read Yousef Munnayer, also at Open Zion, on the same series of events. Indeed, if you only have time to read one post, read his.


John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portraitYesterday proved to be one of those days that Israel/Palestine watchers alternatively thrive on and dread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to announce a resumption of talks on Friday! Influential Israeli cabinet member Naftali Bennett says his party won’t remain in the government “for so much as a second” if the Prime Minister agrees! Wait, it may all be moot, because the PLO has deferred its decision about restarting talks until Israel agrees to the terms Kerry is suggesting! And all this before lunch on the East Coast.

The idea that had been floated was the following: Kerry would announce talks based on the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but the sides would be free to voice their objections to that formula, should they choose—that is: Kerry was to announce the parameters, not Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Palestinian President/PLO chair Abbas, both of whom could feel free to immediately reply with “Not us!” (The Oslo Accords dictate that only the PLO may negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, thus, while Abbas is the President of the Palestinian Authority, it is his role as PLO chair that’s relevant here.) As Haaretz put it this morning:

The Palestinians are entitled to say that they will not accept the principle of Israel as a Jewish state, and the Israelis can say they are not prepared to return to the 1967 lines. Despite any opposition voiced, however, the two sides are expected to return to the negotiating table.

Heretofore, though, the Kerry team has been very, very good at preventing any real information emerging from his shuttle diplomacy, with the apparent understanding that running ideas up flagpoles is an excellent way to get them shot down. It may be of note, then, that the person who told the world this news was a senior Israeli official. I’ve been working under the assumption all along that Kerry has been conducting a very delicate game of Chicken, knowing that neither side wanted to be the first to voice any version of “no”—did someone in the Israeli government want to push the PLO to do just that?

I ask the question not because I know that to be the case, but because in my experience it would make a lot of sense (Palestinians have done the same to Israel in the past; it’s a time-honored tactic). It’s not impossible that Kerry really thought he had an agreement in place, and the PLO upset his applecart.

Or, maybe the game of Chicken continues. Maybe Kerry wanted to push Israel’s right flank into being brutally frank about its position on two-state negotiations, while simultaneously reminding everyone involved that there is genuinely no way forward without the 1967 borders as the starting point. By agreeing to that starting point, the Palestinians concede that Israel won the war, and that they will make do with a bifurcated state in 22 percent of their historic homeland—to try to wring anything more out of the Palestinian leadership would not only be morally and ethically indefensible, it would be political suicide for any Palestinian who agreed.

The 1967 borders also happen to be the starting point of every negotiation process ever attempted heretofore—indeed, the brutal truth is that Kerry’s purported idea represents a step back from the Oslo Accords of twenty years ago: No one ever demanded that the PLO (or Egypt, or Jordan, come to that) recognize Israel as “Jewish.” Furthermore, the Accords between Israel and the PLO were predicated on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which presume, a priori, an Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

In the world of Middle East diplomacy, the lack of the word “the” in the above formulation is of some consequence, because it leaves the question open: All of the territories? Or just some of them? (Choosing to not use the word “the” is something of a tradition in the region—cough*Balfour*cough). Yet 242 and 338 cannot be taken as meaning that the borders aren’t the starting point for withdrawal—that’s what starting point means. You start, and then you talk, and then you reach an agreement.

Was this whole mess carefully orchestrated? Was it a diplomatic snafu? Will it ultimately mean anything? I honestly don’t know.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a skeptic of the type called out so eloquently by Jeremy Ben Ami the other day—I would never, ever say “there’s no point to this exercise, stop trying.” I believe that the future of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples depend on a successful negotiation of a two-state resolution.

And yet I don’t really know any more if it’ll ever work, if only because these kinds of days are what pass for diplomacy at this point: A bunch of high-level fussing and squabbling over whether or not people will even sit at the same table, all while my Israeli government maneuvers to consistently make the terms less tenable for our interlocutors by (among other things) building on their land.

I don’t doubt John Kerry’s sincerity, but when it comes to this conflict, I’ve ridden the merry-go-round too many times to be the dewy-eyed peacenik I once was. Today’s mess is a powerful indication of what the Secretary of State is up against. My only hope is that he really, really knows what he’s doing.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Kerry: Unliateralism is bad for Israel.

John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portraitNot every international diplomat has both flown an Israeli Air Force jet, and can do a credible impression of the Israeli accent. Speaking to the American Jewish Congress on Monday, John Kerry employed the latter as he related the former: “Senator!” he said, recalling the Israeli co-pilot with whom he had flown, “You’re about to go over Egypt! Turn!”

Furthermore, not every international diplomat would overtly link Golda Meir’s philosophy of nationalism to the very people whose existence she denied. After quoting Meir (“We only want that which is given naturally to all peoples of the world: to be masters of our own fate, not of others”), Kerry said “the best way to truly ensure Israel’s security today… [is]by reaching a negotiated resolution that results in two states for two peoples, each able to fulfill their legitimate national aspirations.”

And finally, not every international diplomat would say flat-out that Israel’s propensity for unilateralism is actually a problem:

Some are wary because of Israel’s experience following the withdrawal of Gaza and Lebanon. You have no idea how many times I hear people say, “We withdrew from Lebanon, we withdrew from Gaza, and what did we get? We got rockets.” Well, folks, it’s worth remembering—these withdrawals were unilateral. They were not part of a negotiated peace treaty that included strong guarantees for Israel’s security. [emphasis Kerry’s]

All in all, the event was a classic Obama Administration affair: Kerry spent the first third of his speech making his audience happy (“I’m so pro-Israel, they gave me the keys to one of the planes!”); the second spoon-feeding them what they already knew (“Palestinians deserve a state too, c’mon”); and the final third telling them what they didn’t want to hear (“unilateralism is terrible”).

Much as they might not have wanted to hear it, though, the entire back-end of Kerry’s AJC speech was something of an ode to the hopelessness of unilateralism: the Secretary went on to note that Israel’s bilateral agreements with Jordan and Egypt have served it well, and that even under the new regime, Egypt is working to maintain the Israel-Gaza ceasefire. Regarding Israel’s unilateral establishment of a border on the West Bank, Kerry said:

The people who think somehow because there is a fence and because there’s been greater security and fewer people hurt are lulling themselves into a delusion that that somehow can be sustained. It cannot be.

And as he approached the finish line, he also said this:

We will always stand up for Israel’s security. But wouldn’t we both be stronger if we had some more company?

It was, honestly, a terrific speech, not least because Kerry was honest about things that folks in the trenches have been begging the U.S. to be honest about for years—but terrific speeches can only do so much. And only if the stakeholders are actually interested.

I don’t know how Obama and Kerry look at the current Israeli government and think there’s any hope of any movement toward even the most basic requirements of any peace deal any time soon, much less in the next couple of weeks. It’s a government controlled by the settler agenda, with several ministries in the hands of actual settlers, and all that “Lead Peace Negotiator”/Justice Minister Tzipi Livni can do is what she’s already doing: be a fig leaf.

But surely Obama and Kerry know this. Neither man is a dim bulb, and neither is unfamiliar with the players. Are they hoping to provoke a governmental crisis? Trying to nudge Israelis (69 percent of whom have said they would support Netanyahu should he change his spots and pursue the Arab Peace Initiative, but who recently voted overwhelmingly for parties that didn’t in any way address the need for a two-state peace) into demanding action? Does the Administration know something we don’t (always a possibility)?

The status quo cannot be sustained. The one-state solution, while it may soon be reality, isn’t so much a solution as a disaster-in-waiting. As Kerry said, “the absence of peace is perpetual conflict.”

I’ve tried and failed to lose all hope for Israel/Palestine more times than I can count. I’ve been in two-state game since the first intifada, and probably should have moved on to Celtic Studies by now. Part of me genuinely thinks that Kerry’s efforts are doomed—but another part isn’t ready to let go.

It was a terrific speech. I’m going to hold out a sliver of hope that a man who knows Israelis well enough to nail the accent might also know them well enough to move the dial.

Because honestly: There’s no way to unilaterally achieve peace.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Israel legalizes ‘outpost’ settlements.

The illegal outpost of Givat Asaf is among the four outposts to be declared legal.

The illegal outpost of Givat Asaf is among the four outposts to be declared legal.

By now the story almost writes itself: A high-ranking representative of the U.S. government—in this case, John Kerry—is slated to arrive soon in Israel, part of an effort to reinvigorate a peace process described as “moribund” since at least the early aughts. That effort is already making everyone mad, and Israel has taken the same steps it always takes to ensure that the U.S. government understands exactly where it stands: It’s expanding settlements.

The state said that it will act to legalize four West Bank outposts for which a delimitation order was issued in 2003 by the Israel Defense Forces GOC Central Command. Such an order allows the army to demolish at any time structures located within the delimited area.

In 2007, attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zecharya petitioned the High Court on behalf of the Israeli anti-settlement organization Peace Now, to implement the order.

…construction in the outposts continued despite the order. The High Court requested clarification from the state, and on Tuesday a detailed opinion concerning each one of the four outpost[s] was submitted to the court. In the document, the government said it had taken steps in recent weeks to retroactively authorize the outposts, which were built without official permission.

Built illegally, even by Israel’s standards; acknowledged as illegal, and thus ordered demolished; construction continues, despite state acknowledgement of the illegality of the outposts’ very existence—so sure, ten years later, why not rejigger your country’s laws to provide a patina of respectability? Why not give cover and support to lawbreakers in a manner that is not only insulting to all Israelis who respect the law, but which also flies in the face of the very thing to which your greatest ally has called you to commit yourself time and again?

There’s plenty that’s infuriating in this story, but there’s absolutely nothing new. If you’re a settler, you learned long ago that if you just push hard enough, you can do whatever you want. You will not be held accountable for illegal construction, any more than you might be for setting fire to Palestinian fields, or attacking Palestinian villages.

And if you’re an American diplomat, you learned nearly as long ago that pretty much no matter what you say, no matter what you do, no matter what international law or the global community might say—Israel’s going to keep building. Keep expanding its hold on the West Bank until it has a complete and final hold on all those lands it now occupies illegally, and has ground down or kicked out as many of those lands’ legal occupants as humanly possible. Keep going until a two-state piece is literally impossible, the Palestinians have given up all hope, and Israel reigns triumphant.

At least, as an American and Israeli citizen, I would hope that the Administration and State Department understand by now that that’s the plan. Because that’s the plan. I mean surely, any sentient being with two eyes in their head can see that that’s the plan? Even just one eye?

The only people who might, conceivably, change the plan’s course are all those same Americans. Only if and when it becomes diplomatically untenable for Israel to continue down this illegal and destructive course will my Israeli government even consider throwing on the brakes. Only if and when a U.S. government takes a firm stand and sticks by it will Israelis and Palestinians have so much as a chance at the peace that Kerry is working so hard to achieve.

But let me stress: The plan’s end-goal is, despite everything, unachievable. Israel will not be able to convince the Palestinians to give up all hope, and the Jewish State will ultimately be lost in the effort. At best, all Israel will be able to achieve is a single political entity in which constant, low-level ethnic violence makes any semblance of normal life a distant dream (which is to say: an even worse version of what already exists). That’s the best case scenario. I shudder to think about the other options.

It may already be too late for Kerry to do anything, frankly. Nothing and no one in the current Israeli government gives me any reason to believe that Israel has any interest in turning the country’s Titanic around. For what it’s worth, those who support the settlement project (which is virtually the entire government) appear to be genuine in their assumption that they can force their will on the world.

And why shouldn’t they?

Just like the settlers, Israel’s governments have never been held accountable for their actions. Witness Kerry’s upcoming trip.

Crossposted at Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

An open letter to John Kerry.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Kerry_promotional_photograph_columns.jpgDear Senator Kerry,

In discussing Israel’s election results during your confirmation hearings, you told the Senate:

I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to bring [Israelis and Palestinians] to the negotiating table and go down a different path than the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.

Prayers are a good thing. I have nothing against prayers. But—and I say this with deep respect for and real gratitude to you for your service to this country—praying is my job.

I’m a typer of words and woman of faith—you, on the other hand, are about to become the world’s most powerful diplomat. The part of your statement that matters is that last sentence: “I would like to try and do that.”

I’m already on record as believing that, under the current circumstances, the next Israeli government will be no more inclined toward peace than the current one—but that doesn’t mean that you and the White House can’t change the circumstances.

You’re hearing that Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid is a centrist, and J.J. Goldberg has made an excellent case against pessimism like mine regarding Yesh Atid’s potential—but whatever Lapid may say about insisting on a return to the negotiating table, he’s made very clear that he doesn’t personally understand what he’s up against.

Lapid’s insistence that Israel need only stand firm and the Palestinian people will give up on East Jerusalem is deeply troubling. As you and President Obama (and Prime Minister Netanyahu) know, there are simply no Palestinians, anywhere, who will ever agree to ceding all of Jerusalem to Israel. With that as his starting point, Netanyahu would be more than happy to agree to Lapid’s “negotiations.”

His approach to the settlements is of at least equal concern: While it’s clear that there would be land-swaps in any two-state agreement, most settlers would have to leave the West Bank—but Lapid insists that building won’t stop in major settlement blocs. Yet again, as both you and President Obama know, any construction serves to humiliate and tie the hands of Palestinian negotiators (in addition to being in direct contradiction to the Road Map for Peace that Israel signed with the U.S. in 2003). Moreover, the limitation of “major settlement blocs” is squishy at best. Even Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement “freeze” was more chimera than concession, in that construction never actually stopped, and was redoubled the instant the putative freeze ended.

Simply put: Every single home and road added to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is another nail in the coffin of a two-state peace. Whatever and whoever Yair Lapid might be, Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certainly going to be the next Prime Minister, and moreover, Yesh Atid is not the only party with which he’s discussing a coalition. Netanyahu has made it very clear that he wants to transform the so-called E-1 section of the West Bank into a major settlement bloc (again: in direct contradiction to promises made to successive American governments), and if the E-1 plan moves forward, it will in fact cut the West Bank in two. There’s no way to both establish a Palestinian state, and continue to coddle Israel’s settlers and their government backers.

I don’t think I’m telling you anything new. Not only do you know what a two-state peace requires, unlike most of Congress, you’ve actually been to Gaza. You’ve seen what the lives of Palestinians look like up close.

And I suspect that you also know that if you and President Obama can’t facilitate some kind of serious return to the negotiating table, the dream of a two-state peace will die on your watch.

I may have little faith in Yair Lapid and none in Benjamin Netanyahu as peacemakers—but I have enormous faith in the ability of the United States to lead, to change the international atmosphere in which Israel’s politicians function, and to encourage boldness.

Once in your new office, you can clarify to the next Israeli government that the U.S. will be standing by its own policies more firmly in the future. American vetoes at the U.N. need not be a foregone conclusion, the tax-exempt status of settlement-supportive American charities might be examined, and as Lara Friedman wrote in these pages, a simple change in official tone would go a long way. On the other hand, in exchange for concrete Israeli steps (rather than the winks and nudges of the past), the U.S. might offer the kind of financial support that would help relieve many of the social worries facing the vast majority of Israelis who live legally within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

It might not work, and not least because you’ll still have Hamas to deal with. No risky undertaking is ever guaranteed. But as an Israeli, as an American, and as a pro-Palestinian activist, I think it’s immeasurably important that the United States make the effort.

The continuing failure to achieve a durable peace not only provides extremists with anti-American recruiting tools, it serves to grind down the courage of Israelis and Palestinians—and they will need courage to leave the conflict behind.

So please, Senator. I’m grateful for your prayers, but I would be much more grateful for action. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us in Selma: Sometimes we have to pray with our feet.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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