It’s back to the bad old days. Not since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a stinging response to US President Barack Obama’s comments in May 2011 about the 1967 lines as the baseline for peace talks has the prime minister responded with such agitation and irritation to American policies as on Friday morning, before his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
After saying that Israel “utterly rejects” a deal on Iran that was being hammered out in Geneva, Netanyahu turned to the Palestinian issue and said, “I will never compromise on Israel’s security and our vital interests, not in the face of any international pressure.”
Friday was the day of intense negotiations in Geneva where, in Netanyahu’s mind, the Americans were essentially letting the Iranians off the ropes, saving them before the bell. And it was also the day after Thursday, when Kerry gave a joint interview to Channel 2’s Udi Segal and Maher Shalabi of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, essentially blaming Israel for the impasse in the negotiations.
For a diplomat, Kerry was strikingly undiplomatic in that interview, warning Israel that if it did not do what the Palestinians and the US wanted, it would face a third intifada and international isolation.
“The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos,” Kerry said. “I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?”
Some might have asked Kerry the question in reverse. “If you impose an agreement on Israel that doesn’t give it the security it believes it needs, does the US want to see rockets falling on Tel Aviv?”
What made Kerry’s threats of a third intifada even more jarring was that they came just days after a poll conducted by the Arab World For Research & Development found that only 29 percent of the Palestinians said they supported a third intifada.
Kerry invoking a third intifada is reminiscent of Obama calling for a complete and total settlement freeze in May 2009, something the Palestinians weren’t talking about at that time, thus forcing their hand and pushing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas up a tree from which it took years to bring him down.
Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Barack Obama has been famously rocky, some say even dysfunctional. That, at least, was the situation during their previous terms in office.
Obama significantly changed the tone and tenor of that relationship when he came to Israel in March. From that time onwards there were few stories about how bad or dysfunctional the relationship was. Not necessarily because the two men fell in love with each other, but because they seemed to agree that it was doing neither side a bit of good to have those disagreements in public.
Showing daylight between the sides, something Obama said in 2009 might not be that bad, did not work: It did not move the Palestinians forward toward peace, it did not promote US interests in the region, and it definitely did not help Israel.
Since March, those disagreements remained pretty much behind closed doors. The blinds were closed and the daylight kept out. Until the Kerry interview. The Kerry interview put those differences again on full display: Here again was the US making the settlements the central issue; here now was America making clear that it did not support Israel’s position that an IDF presence needed to remain in the Jordan Valley for security reasons; here again was the US implying that if only Israel would demonstrate the necessary flexibility, peace would flow like a river and be a blessing to the whole region. Here again was a US senior official giving the Palestinians reason to hope that if they just hold out, the US will “deliver” Israel.
Kerry’s whole tone was one of impatience with the intransigence of Israeli policies: as if those polices were intransigent for their own sake, not because Israel did indeed have legitimate security concerns, or did indeed have deeply held religious and historical ties to areas under discussion.
“I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place in an international basis, that if we don’t not resolve the question of settlements and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have, if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence,” he said.
What was telling in his comments were that they were void of any demands on the Palestinians: not to compromise, not to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, not to realize that they may not get everything they hope for. There was one shout-out to the incitement issue, but even then Kerry did not explicitly mention Palestinian incitement, but spoke generally about having to “stop the incitement,” with the Palestinians then able to say, “Sure, Israel incites against us as well.”
Even a question about how Israel should interpret Abbas welcoming back Palestinian terrorists as heroes led to Kerry’s question about whether Israel wanted a third intifada.
Obama came to the country in May to try to win over an Israeli public that was deeply skeptical of him and his policies. And in one short visit – saying the right things, going to the right places, joking with Netanyahu – he was able, to a large degree, to do that.
A Jerusalem Post poll taken in October 2012, just prior to the US elections, had only 18% of the Israeli public saying Obama was pro-Israel, and 28% saying he was pro-Palestinian. Those figures were flipped around in a poll after his visit: 27% said he was pro-Israel, and 16% pro-Palestinian.
Kerry’s interview will erode some of that goodwill.
“Israel says oh, we feel safe today, we have a wall, we’re not in a day-today conflict, we’re doing pretty well economically,” Kerry said. “Well, I’ve got news for you. Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow or next year’s. Because if we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab world, the Palestinians, neighbors, others are going to begin again to push in a different way.”
This I-know-what-is-better-for-you-than-you-do tone, this if-you-don’t-do-what-I-say-you-will-get-punished tone, is not going to endear him to wide swaths of the Israeli public who, in order to take the risks Kerry wants them to, will have to get a sense that he understands them and their concerns.
Kerry’s interview definitely did not leave that impression, especially when he says, “Well I’ve got news for you.”
As if Israel doesn’t understand there is a problem, as if it has not made significant sacrifices already to try and resolve it, and as if the key to resolving it rests solely in its hands.