IN DECEMBER 2015, in a well-orchestrated sequence of unprecedentedly blunt public statements, the US administration warned Israel of the consequences of a policy leading inexorably to a single Israeli-Palestinian state under Israeli control. In such circumstances, Israel would not be able to be both Jewish and democratic; it would be internationally reviled; and the US would be powerless to do much about it.
American leaders spelled out in the bleakest terms what it would mean for future Israeli generations and where a one-state reality dominated by Israel would leave the Palestinians. They painted a picture of endemic violence and severe economic costs for both sides as a large Palestinian underclass without equal rights struggled to be free.
In the short term, if there is no change of course, the Americans fear the imminent collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, leaving Israel facing a huge security and economic burden.
The American leaders presented their latest warnings as the pained counsel of deeply concerned friends. But the harsh, pejorative terms they used in describing the future Israel is headed for raises serious questions.
For example, for how long and to what extent will America remain supportive, if the government persists with its current policies, and under what circumstances would American support for Israel start to crack? For now, the high level of strategic cooperation between the two countries remains untouched. The $40-$50 billion military aid package for the ten-year period 2017-2027 will almost certainly come through and the authorizing memorandum of understanding will probably be signed by US President Barack Obama before he leaves office. But already Washington’s new, more critical tone suggests diplomatic fissures, which could quickly widen, leaving Israel exposed to inimical international diplomatic and economic initiatives.
The turning point in the level of American frustration with Israel was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s futile late November visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah. His aim was to put a damper on Palestinian violence and start rebuilding trust between the parties.
The plan was to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make some economic concessions to the Palestinians and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas take action to end incitement and terror against Israel in return. Over time Kerry hoped this would evolve into a more detailed program to improve the quality of everyday Palestinian life, de-escalating the violence and creating conditions for reengagement on a two-state solution.
BUT ALTHOUGH Netanyahu had suggested economic moves to help the Palestinians in an early November meeting with Obama in Washington, he failed to deliver. Under the circumstances, Abbas also refused to go along with Kerry’s plan. Twenty months after the collapse of his ambitious Israeli- Palestinian peace effort, the American secretary of state left the region deeply dismayed and concerned about the future.
It was then that he decided to ratchet up the warning rhetoric.
The first opportunity presented itself a week later at the 2015 Saban Forum, an annual high-level Israeli-American dialogue sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Kerry told the gathering that he had found Abbas more despondent than ever, that the Palestinian leader had spoken of a widespread “sense of hopelessness” among the Palestinian people and insisted that as a result of its failure to deliver on the peace process, the PA was in serious danger of collapse.
That, Kerry warned, could have horrendous consequences for Israel. First, there was no saying “in a world buzzing with Daesh and jihad and Hamas” who might take over; second, the 30,000 Palestinian security forces helping to maintain order would no longer be around. “Without the PA security forces, the IDF could be forced to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to the West Bank indefinitely to fill the void. Are Israelis prepared for the consequences this would have for their children and grandchildren, who serve in the IDF, when the inevitable friction leads to confrontation and violence?” Kerry challenged.
There would also be heavy financial costs.
“Without the PA, Israel would also shoulder the responsibility for providing basic services in the West Bank, including for maintaining schools, hospitals, and law and order,” Kerry observed. And he went on to ask, “Are Israelis ready to make up for over a billion dollars a year in assistance that the PA would no longer see provided by the international community because it’s no longer there? What about the additional billion dollars a year in development-related assistance, most of it for the West Bank? What would happen if the Palestinian economy and private sector collapsed under the pressure and there was widespread unemployment and poverty?” Without using the apartheid word, Kerry painted something akin to an apartheid picture of a unitary state from the river to the sea run by a Jewish minority. “Would millions of Palestinians be given the basic rights of Israeli citizens including the right to vote, or would they be relegated to a permanent underclass? Would the Israelis and Palestinians living in such close quarters have segregated roads and transportation systems with different laws applying to Palestinian enclaves? Would anyone really believe they were being treated equally? What would the international response be to that, my friends, or to a decision by Israel to unilaterally annex large portions of the West Bank?” Kerry followed up his devastating critique in the December issue of The New Yorker.
In a profile by chief editor David Remnick, he added that one of the biggest problems was that the current Israeli government simply had no answers to these legitimate and crucial questions, no strategy, no direction and no plan. “It is not an answer to simply continue to build in the West Bank and destroy the homes of the other folks you’re trying to make peace with and pretend that’s a solution.” he declared derisively.
The fact that Kerry, a lifelong friend of Israel, felt it necessary to resort to language reminiscent of the most critical European leaders is significant. Clearly, the immediate diplomatic goal is to get the Netanyahu government to wake up to the dangers and adopt what, in the American view, would be more rational policies. But it also suggests the beginnings of what could prove to be a significant shift in official American thinking on Israel. The question Kerry didn’t ask – the elephant in the room – is how long can America keep backing a government responsible for the emergence of a state of affairs its secretary of state describes in such unflattering terms.
Obama delivered a similar message, albeit in a much lower key. In an early December meeting in Washington, he told President Reuven Rivlin that the stalemate in Israeli- Palestinian negotiations was making it increasingly difficult for the US to block international peace efforts Israel opposed.
Over the past few years, Obama explained, Kerry had staved off inimical international moves by telling the initiators that he was leading a viable peace process and urging them to give him the time he needed to pull it off. Now he had nothing to tell them.
The upshot could be holes in the diplomatic umbrella with which the US has traditionally shielded Israel. For example, peace plans now being worked on by France and New Zealand for submission to the UN Security Council may escape a US veto – unless there is some substantial Israeli quid pro quo.
THAT THE new public articulation of tough questions for Israel is now administration policy was clearly underlined by Samantha Powers, Washington’s United Nations ambassador.
At a mid-December conference in New York, organized by the left-leaning Haaretz daily and the New Israel Fund, Powers argued that continued settlement “raises questions about Israel’s long-term objectives.” She excoriated both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships for a lack of “sufficient commitment from either side to create conditions for peace.” And, echoing both Obama and Kerry, she asked, “What do we say to those in the international community who are frustrated by the lack of a two-state solution?” “What is the explanation for settlement building in areas that will be part of a future Palestinian state?” “What answers does Israel have for its well-wishers in the UN and what concrete policies that advance a two-state solution?” The Israeli government hopes to ride out the storm. Officials point out that the Obama administration has little more than a year left in office. But the chances are that there will be more continuity than change in the next administration – especially if front-runner, fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House.
Clinton also spoke at the early December Saban Forum and delivered a message that in essence was not very different from Kerry’s. “Inaction is not an option and a one state solution is no solution, but a prescription for endless conflict,” she declared. And she also warned that if the PA collapsed, “the alternative could be the black flag of ISIS.”
In a jab at Netanyahu’s frequent denigration of Abbas, Clinton praised the Palestinian leader for his “stalwart” commitment to security cooperation with Israel and insisted that he was the best option around. “He has certainly been willing to explore different ways of cooperation and confidence building.
And I’m well aware that he has his problems and there’s a lot of questions about his standing, but, you know, you have to start where you have to start from. And I think it’s been unfortunate that he’s been in many eyes marginalized when there really is as yet no alternative,” she declared.
Clinton also spoke of taking the US-Israel relationship to “the next level,” without spelling out what that may be. It seemed as if she was contemplating offering a large carrot to any Israeli government that worked seriously with her for a two-state solution and wider Middle East peace. Israel, she said, should try to leverage common interests with moderate Arab governments, the Arab States should update their 2002 peace initiative, and Israel should respond to it.
Obviously this American administration and any administration that succeeds it are still a long way off from taking any punitive measures against Israel. On the contrary, the current administration is committed to foiling attempts by the BDS movement and others to delegitimize the Jewish state.
But Kerry’s description of the nature of the single state to which Israel is heading implies stern moral censure and suggests future American distancing from Israel should such a reality evolve.
In the view of the current American administration, Israel holds excellent cards for a bright future, but is playing its hand very badly. Its blunt warnings are intended to bring the Netanyahu government to its senses before it is too late.
Should this shock treatment fail, as it very well might, Israel could find itself on a dangerous collision course with a well-disposed but frustrated ally finally running out of patience.