Will Kerry's frantic shuttle diplomacy bring peace?

The US secretary of state will find that Israel differs in its opinion of what is needed for peace efforts to bear fruit.

John Kerry 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
John Kerry 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
There is nothing necessarily exceptional about hearing the words “Am Yisrael hai” (“The People of Israel live”) bellowed out by a speaker addressing the American Jewish Committee at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington.
What is exceptional, however, is when the speaker is not the AJC president nor a rabbi giving the convocation, but rather US Secretary of State John Kerry – the same Kerry who is in the midst of a super-energetic attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and is engaged in a type of shuttle diplomacy that would make Henry Kissinger proud.
(Just to put the scene in perspective: Imagine Kissinger, in the midst of his shuttle diplomacy in the mid ’70s, trying to cobble together disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria, addressing a Jewish audience and saying “Am Yisrael hai.”) Kerry, soon after telling the crowd that his brother Cam converted to Judaism 30 years ago before marrying, went on to tell the audience at the annual AJC Global Forum of his first visit to Israel in 1986, and an unforgettable climb he and the group he was traveling with made to the top of Masada.
“I stood atop the spectacular summit of Masada, which we climbed up, where 2,000 years ago 1,000 martyrs made the ultimate sacrifice in unison and in the name of defending the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people,” Kerry said.
He then related how his guide instructed his group to stand at the edge of Masada and “call out across the chasm, ‘Am Yisrael hai.’” “We did it together,” Kerry related. “The People of Israel live! The State of Israel lives! “And we shouted, and then we listened. And we actually heard our voices bouncing off the cavern on the other side of the mountains, and they came back to us, and it was really as if, eerily, it was the voices of those who had fought coming back to us, the voices of past generations. These bonds I share with Israel and all of its modern-day challenges, and they were strengthened each time that I got to see the state.”
What Kerry did with this story, as well as with the tale about his brother – which he interspersed, like US President Barack Obama, with a Hebrew phrase – was to burnish his credentials with his audience: “We are almost family. I get you, I understand you, I know where you are coming from.”
Then, a few minutes into his speech, he added that he has been intimately involved in the Mideast challenges for 30 years; that he comes to the issue not as a stranger, but as a friend; and that he has a perfect voting record in the Senate on Israel for 29 years. In doing so, he was adding another layer to the message: “I know what is good for you.”
And what is good for Israel, he asserted, is to push forward hard, forcefully and energetically toward a two states for two peoples solution, even as the region is roiling.
There were a number of telling elements in Kerry’s speech.
The first was the degree to which it paralleled Obama’s keynote address to a select group of students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in March.
Like Obama, Kerry expressed strong emotional support for Israel. Like Obama, Kerry enumerated Israel’s wonderful achievements. And like Obama, Kerry implored his audience to push their leaders harder toward peace. They both asserted that the status quo was unsustainable.
The Kerry speech also reflected some nuanced changes in the US approach, and also highlighted a major conceptual difference that still exists between the US and Israel in their views of the region.
First, the nuanced changes.
Kerry seemed to step back from the oft-heard sentiment that everyone knows what a final agreement will look like, and that all that is needed is a little more prodding here, and cajoling there, to push the sides over the precipice and into the warm embrace of a comprehensive agreement.
“I know it’s hard,” he said. “After all, there’s a reason why this problem hasn’t been solved yet.”
In his address, Kerry also stepped back from the idea, long subscribed to by many in Washington and even more so in Europe, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to Middle East stability, and at the core of all the problems in the region – something that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu once referred to as “the theory of Palestinian centrality.” Current US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave voice to this sentiment in 2006, saying in a Senate speech, “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab- Israeli conflict.”
Kerry, however, is singing a different tune. “We know that this conflict, my friends, is not the cause of problems in the Middle East. Indeed, it has often been used as a convenient excuse for autocrats who didn’t want their own populations to recognize and wrestle with the inadequacies of their own governance. An excuse.
“But make no mistake,” he continued.
“Resolving this conflict for both sides can have far-reaching benefits that will be in everybody’s interest. And the reverse is also true: Not resolving this will result in serious consequences for both.”
Regarding the glaring conceptual gap that still exits between the Obama administration and Israel, this came out when Kerry sought to present the changes in the Arab world as a moment of opportunity for Israel, a sentiment at odds with some leading Israeli assessments.
“Now,” Kerry said, speaking of his peacemaking efforts, “some say that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it’s too messy, it’s too uncertain. But in reality, the dawn of a new era in the region is exactly the kind of time to recast Israel’s relationships, to change the narrative with a new generation that is starting to make its voice heard.”
This echoed words Obama said in an interview with Channel 2 just prior to his March visit. “There is now a situation in which Israel can’t count on just a few autocrats holding everything together in the neighborhood,” the president said. “Israel has an interest in being able to speak to the Arab street.”
THAT SENTIMENT, however, presupposes that the Arab street is in the mood to hear from Israel, or to reconcile with its existence – a presumption that is not being made in Jerusalem.
Back in March, just before Obama’s visit, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi gave a public lecture in which he talked about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and how Islamist parties have moved into the vacuum throughout the region. In this atmosphere, he said, there is less – not more – inclination by the Arab masses to reconcile with Israel.
The feeling among the Arab masses that Israel is an alien element in the region, he said, was growing, and not diminishing.
And that is one of Israel’s central conceptual gaps with the US: While Washington feels this is the time for Israel to make inroads on the Arab street, Jerusalem’s sense is that the Arab street is less inclined, not more so, to want to reconcile with Israel, regardless of the Palestinian issue.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Kerry – due back here next week for his fifth visit in four months – was short on details of how he envisioned a final agreement, though the contours of what he is after are clear: an Israeli withdrawal to close to pre-1967 lines that would include mutually agreed-upon land swaps, in exchange for genuine peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state.
His speech focused on the imperative, for Israel’s own future and well-being, of pushing for this peace. It did not deal with what was expected of the Palestinians. That, however, was contained in an address given a few hours later at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs by International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz. Even though it was not a direct response to Kerry, elements of these remarks could be seen as addressing issues that are currently being discussed by Kerry and his team in trying to get the sides back to the table.
Though Steinitz’s impact on the government on diplomatic issues is limited because he is not a member of the security cabinet, he is a close political ally of Netanyahu who has direct access to him.
While he does not speak for Netanyahu, government officials concur that what Steinitz says on diplomatic issues can be seen as fairly reflective of Netanyahu’s thinking.
And what he said just a few hours after Kerry’s address was that it was not enough to ask what Israel can do for the peace process, but also what the Palestinians will give.
Steinitz, who was present at the main meetings in Jerusalem that Netanyahu held over the last few months with Obama, Kerry and Hagel, said that while the government was ready “to make painful concessions,” there were two “post-conditions” to an agreement that had to be met: “genuine peace,” and “genuine security.”
What Kerry did not mention in his speech, in fact what no administration official has formally said, is that the Palestinians will need to recognize Israel as the homeland, the nation-state of the Jewish people, and give up on the “right of return.” Only that would lead to genuine peace, Steinitz said.
“A genuine peace means an end to all claims, an end of conflict, and real recognition of Israel as it is, as it was established, as the homeland, the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said.” If you read the 1947 UN [partition] resolution, Israel was not mentioned by name, because no one knew [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion was going to name it Israel. The UN resolution speaks of the establishment of a Jewish state.”
It is high time, Steinitz said, that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist – and not only its existence, which is an incontrovertible fact, but its right and legitimacy to exist.
“Even the Iranians recognize Israel’s very existence,” Steinitz said. “Even those who want to destroy you have to recognize your very existence if they want to destroy you.
They cannot destroy the nonexistent.”
But recognizing the “right of the Jewish people to their own tiny, minuscule state on its historical homeland” is something much different than just recognizing that it exists, he added.
That is what Israel demands, and that is something that has not been forthcoming.
Likewise, Steinitz said, another “post-condition” is the Palestinian forfeit of their claim to a “right of return.”
“What does this right of return mean?” Steinitz asked. “How can someone, on one hand, want to establish a Palestinian nation-state, but then say ‘I want to send my people to another state, not to a Palestinian state, but to a Jewish state?’” As far as real security, Steinitz did something that Kerry – in his address – indicated he was tired of hearing: He pointed to the precedents of the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza to show how withdrawal does not work.
Regarding those examples, Kerry said: “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, and they certainly weren’t part of a peace agreement that agrees to be a demilitarized state or entity.”
But if, as some have suggested, part of those “strong guarantees for Israel’s security” are international forces, then Steinitz said this was something Israel would not accept. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza show why Israel cannot accept international forces, Steinitz said, arguing that in both those cases – the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, and Palestinian Authority, Egyptian and EU security forces in Gaza – international forces were supposed to guarantee that areas the IDF withdrew from would not be jumping-off points for attacks. In both cases, they failed.
Those failures, as well as what Israel is demanding from the Palestinians as “postconditions” to negotiations, will obviously be back on the table when Kerry comes back to the region next week.
There are two things that Steinitz said impressed him most from sitting in on recent meetings with Obama, Hagel and Kerry. The first was their “clear support for Israel and Israel’s security.” And the second was “the energy, very positive energy, a lot of goodwill and energy trying to bring both sides back to the table without preconditions.”
That energy and goodwill was on display when Kerry met the AJC. What remains to be seen is whether it will be nearly enough.