Recent disclosures relating to the initiative by US Secretary of State John Kerry to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be extremely troubling to those who believe that a two-state solution is Israel’s only means to maintain itself as a Jewish and democratic state. In his recent a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kerry’s special envoy for Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, did not mince words: “If you care about Israel’s future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future. If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions.”
Predictably, right-wing Israeli politicians and advocacy organizations have jumped on the remarks to suggest that Kerry’s team is unjustifiably blaming Israel for the talks’ failure. In truth, Indyk and Kerry have been at pains to place blame on both parties for taking provocative actions that undermined the process.
Yet Indyk’s remarks suggest that the current Israeli government has not made every effort to advance the peace process. In fact, despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s professed support for a two-state solution, many members of his government have been working against that goal.
As anonymous members of Secretary Kerry’s peace team recently told Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, “We didn’t realize that the continuation of the construction was enabling ministers in his cabinet to sabotage the success of the negotiations very effectively.
There are many more reasons for the failure of the effort, but people in Israel must not evade the bitter truth – the main sabotage was the settlements.”
It is time for Israel, and pro-Israel, two-state advocates in the Jewish diaspora to all come to grips with this “bitter truth”: This Israeli government, catering to the extreme Right, is disinterested in creating conditions conducive to peace. An increasingly rightwing Likud, and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party, have sought to undermine the negotiations and publicly disparage Secretary Kerry’s efforts – with little or no recrimination. In fact, the coalition, as presently constituted, has placed its ability to continue settlement expansion in the West Bank at the core of its vision for Israel, taking priority over pursuing peace, security and prosperity for its citizenry. It has given no early indication of a willingness to create a territorially viable Palestinian state.
As American mediators told Barnea, “The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel truly intends to let them establish a state, while at the same time it is building settlements on the territory designated for this state... this is not compatible with an agreement.”
To be sure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself took provocative actions. He has done little to prepare his own public for a historic compromise and has now returned to efforts to internationalize the conflict. And his joining a unity arrangement with Hamas put an end to any hopes that the current negotiations could be extended.
And yet, Israel’s continued settlement activity, particularly in areas beyond the major population blocs, has provided Palestinian leaders with an excuse to avoid making compromises or preparing their public for peace. And, as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni recently said, settlement activity provides fodder for Israel’s international detractors to fuel the growing campaigns to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, apathy in Israel, and among American Jews, threatens to ensure that the radical right wing will continue to dictate the future of the Jewish state.
As Indyk told the Washington Institute, neither side “feel(s) the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace. It is easier for the Palestinians to sign conventions and appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of ‘justice’ and their ‘rights,’ a process which by definition requires no compromise.
It is easier for Israeli politicians to avoid tension in the governing coalition and for the Israeli people to maintain the current comfortable status quo. It is safe to say that if we, the US, are the only party that has a sense of urgency, these negotiations will not succeed.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has acknowledged that a two-state solution is necessary, and that without it, Israel will risk becoming a binational state. But it should now be clear that his government has instead taken more time to take intentionally provocative actions to prevent a two-state solution than constructive actions that would make it a realistic possibility.
Regardless of whether negotiations with the Palestinians can be resumed in the near-term, Israel must at least stop building in areas beyond the major settlement blocs if it purports to be serious about avoiding the bi-national threat.
To maintain the status quo means to continue a trend in which Israel’s future as a democratic state moves further in jeopardy, its international standing plummets, its relations with the majority of American Jews sours, and its diplomatic relations with the United States government become strained.
If the Israeli public and Israel’s supporters in the Diaspora sit idly by, it would be, as Martin Indyk warns, “a tragedy of historic proportions.”
The author is board chair of the Israel Policy Forum.