So Much for Friendship

Secretary of State John Kerry (File photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry (File photo)

Conventional wisdom holds that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in a two-state solution and that the United States will always have Israel’s back through the peace process. In one speech last week, Secretary of State John Kerry turned that wisdom on its head.

On their face, Kerry’s remarks seemed to be nothing more than a recitation of timeworn policy positions: He condemned Palestinian violence and criticized Israel’s ongoing civilian and military presence in the so-called West Bank.

But coming just days after the United States withheld its powerful veto to allow passage of a one-sided resolution in the U.N. Security Council that declared Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria an affront to international law, Kerry’s speech should more properly be seen as the final parting shot (some would say betrayal) by an outgoing administration that up until this point — owing to the largest military aid package in the history of U.S.-Israel relations — was reasonably regarded as solidly on the side of the Jewish state.

Ever since the U.N. vote, we’ve wondered why the United States waited until now to act upon its condemnation of the Israeli settlement enterprise and to help orchestrate a Security Council declaration that Israelis living on the other side of the 1967 borders — including those living in a good portion of Jerusalem and the entire Old City — are outlaws.

If Kerry’s speech was intended to provide a good answer, it failed. “The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution,” the secretary said in his Dec. 28 speech, “but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements.” Translation: The Obama administration has been battling Benjamin Netanyahu for years, and now, weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, the White House feels the need to lay out its vision for the Middle East.

The bare-knuckled tactics chosen by Obama and Kerry are more fitting for a Chicago alderman race than for the implementation of foreign policy. But even more disconcerting, Kerry’s speech was also incredibly naïve. The Israelis predictably rejected it out of hand, but so did the Palestinians, who objected to the language criticizing terror attacks. Russia and the United Kingdom also joined the chorus of dissenters — an amazing development, given that just days earlier both nations voted for the anti-settlements resolution at the Security Council. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May summed up her beef with Kerry’s speech by calling improper an attempt to impugn the government makeup of a democratic ally.

To May, we say, “Hear! Hear!” And for Kerry, we have one question: If the U.S. position is so sound and necessary, why did the U.S. abstain on the Security Council vote?

To us, Kerry’s explanation seems more in keeping with the new conventional wisdom: From Ukraine to Iran, to Syria and to Israel, foreign policy under the Obama/Kerry regime has been feckless, ineffectual and uninspiring.

House Support for Israel

It is rare to get the warring political factions in Washington to agree on anything. But last week, in a unanimous vote, the House of Representatives sent a clear message to President Barack Obama that he should oppose any U.N. Security Council resolution that seeks to impose on the parties a  solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In unmistakable terms, the bipartisan resolution called on the president “to oppose and veto … resolutions that seek to impose solutions to final status issues, or are one-sided and anti-Israel.” It even directed that proposed “parameters” of a settlement should be rejected.

Add to that a similar letter signed in September by 88 senators that urged Obama to veto any Security Council resolution that recognizes Palestine and it seems that Israel has wall-to-wall support in the Capitol for its position that negotiations should be bilateral and that solutions should not be imposed from the outside.

While these developments give comfort to Israel’s supporters, we can’t help but notice disconcerting moves coming from the Obama administration and troubling commentary from the left flank of the Democratic Party on the need for some kind of U.S. or international intervention. The concern seems to be based on the recognition that chances for a two-state solution are being eroded by facts on the ground — that toxic combination of Palestinian intransigence and Israel’s  expansionist policies in the settlement blocs. So, there have been reactions. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry  recently told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group that short of direct U.S. intervention, “there are other things we can do” to preserve a two-state solution.

What was Kerry talking about? Could it mean some effort to recognize a Palestinian state, if only in name? Does that make any sense? Well, that is exactly what former President Jimmy Carter called for last week in a New York Times op-ed. “This is the best — now, perhaps, the only — means of countering the one-state reality that Israel is imposing on itself and the Palestinian people,” Carter wrote. And he argued that “recognition of Palestine and a new Security Council resolution are not radical new measures, but a natural outgrowth of America’s support for a two-state solution.”

Carter has been battling Israeli settlements for more than three decades. He conveniently ignores the clear choice made by the Palestinians at the beginning of the millennium to disengage from the peace process and to embark on continued warfare against Israeli civilians. But while that may explain the logjam, it doesn’t excuse it.

There is no question that Israel can do something to create a better situation in which to make peace. But it would be foolish to do so without a willing partner with whom to negotiate. And until one appears, Congress seems to be telling the president that we need to step back and let the parties chose their own course.  Because that’s what self-determination is all about.

A Matter of Concern

The Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

The Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

Hundreds of members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last weed expressing concern over Iran’s “refusal to fully cooperate” with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s continuing investigation into Iran’s dismantlement of its nuclear program as required by the  P5+1 framework agreement.

The letter, signed by 352 members of the House of Representatives, included House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“We believe that Iran’s willingness to fully reveal all aspects of its nuclear program is a fundamental test of Iran’s intention to uphold a comprehensive agreement,” Royce and Engel, who authored the letter, wrote. “As you [Kerry] wrote in the Washington Post earlier this summer, if Iran’s nuclear program is truly peaceful, ‘it’s not a hard proposition to prove.’ The only reasonable conclusion for its stonewalling of international investigators is that Tehran does indeed have much to hide.”

The letter stated that any agreement that does not fully hold the Iranian regime accountable for meeting IAEA deadlines and inquiries would set a “dangerous precedent” and that Iran should not be allowed to declare parts of its nuclear infrastructure off limits to IAEA inspections. Such obstruction would frustrate the monitors’ ability to make “accurate predictions of the period of time needed by Iran to assemble a [nuclear] weapon and [to make an] assessment of Iran’s compliance.

“We would like to achieve a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis,” continued the letter. “As negotiations resume, we urge you to carefully monitor Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s inquiry.”

The IAEA, an agency of the U.N., reported last month that Iran missed a deadline in February to which it had agreed as part of a framework agreement with the P5+1. That agreement led the United States to lift some of its economic sanctions against Iran and to contemplate providing further relief when and if a final deal is reached.

According to Reuters in a story last week, the IAEA reported that Iran had failed to answer questions about its research into explosive testing and neutron calculations — essential to the production of nuclear weapons — by the Aug. 25 deadline.

Meeting with President Barack Obama last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that despite the numerous regional threats to Israel, including Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS, Iran remains Israel’s greatest danger.

“Even more critical is our shared goal of preventing Iran from becoming a military nuclear power,” said Netanyahu. “As you know, Mr. President, Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you’ve worked so hard to put in place, and leave it as a threshold nuclear power.  I fervently hope that under your leadership that would not happen.”

The P5+1 negotiations recently entered their final phase, beginning with trilateral meetings between Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. The deadline for a final agreement in the negotiations is scheduled for Nov. 24.

Israel Under Pressure To Give Up Chemical, Nuclear Weapons

The United States-Russian deal for the destruction of Syria’s huge chemical weapon stocks caused Israelis to breathe an audible sigh of relief.

Many expected that a U.S. strike would push either Syria or its ally Hezbollah to retaliate by attacking Israel. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Israelis, not known for their patience, spent hours waiting in line for government-issued gas masks.

Yet the deal also increases pressure on Israel to get rid of its chemical and, even more troubling to the Jewish state, its nuclear stockpile. If Syria must get rid of its chemical weapons, the reasoning goes, why can’t Israel do the same?

Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel to discuss the Syrian plan with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. According to the deal, Syria will give a list of all its chemical weapons sites to the United Nations within a week, and all such arms would be destroyed by the middle of 2014.

Groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Syria has already moved significant stocks of chemical weapons out of the country. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal claimed that some 200 trucks were loaded with chemical weapons last week and sent to Iraq.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that Israel has “good capabilities” when it comes to following the trail of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

At the same time, the 100 tons of chemical agents and munitions that Syria is believed to possess are distributed among dozens of sites, which will make their verification and destruction difficult.

Netanyahu sounded unconvinced when it came to the new U.S.-Russian agreement. He spoke after his meeting with Kerry.

“We have been closely following — and support — [the] ongoing efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian regime must be stripped of all its chemical weapons, and that would make our entire region a lot safer,” Netanyahu said. “What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time, that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat. What is true of Syria is true of Iran, and, by the way, vice versa.

Other Israeli officials were less diplomatic.

“All of the conversation is duplicitous,” a senior Israeli official said. “It’s a way of diverting attention away from the real subject, which is the fact that Syria has chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons and has threatened its use of chemical weapons to try to switch the spotlight onto us. While we’ve been going to coffee shops and starting high-tech companies, they’ve been using chemical weapons.”

Israel has always kept a low profile when it comes to its own chemical weapons program. They signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1982 but never ratified it, which means that Israel considers itself bound by the spirit of the treaty but not legally obligated to observe it.

“The main pretext for Israel’s refusal to ratify the treaty was the Syrian arsenal,” Eitan Barak, a professor of international relations from Hebrew University, said. “Israel says Syria is a neighbor country, hostile, with a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and we needed to be able to retaliate.”

He said that given Israel’s pharmaceutical success, it is likely that Israel has a significant arsenal of these armaments. Israeli officials say that efforts to force Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention are duplicitous.

“Unfortunately, while Israel signed the Convention, other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the Convention,” Deputy Foreign Minister Paul Hirschson said. “Some of these states don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it. In this context, the chemical weapons threat against Israel and its civilian population is neither theoretical nor distant. Terror organizations, acting as proxies for certain regional states, similarly pose a chemical weapons threat. These threats cannot be ignored by Israel in the assessment of possible ratification of the Convention.”

Even more disturbing to the Jewish state is a possible linkage of its chemical weapons program with its nuclear weapons program. Israel’s long-stated nuclear policy is one of ambiguity.

“Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” officials have intoned repeatedly over the past decades.

Yet the purported chemical weapons deal with Syria has also increased pressure on Israel to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Some 190 states have joined the NPT, whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Of the world’s nuclear powers, only four have not joined the treaty — India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have all openly tested nuclear weapons, and Israel, with its policy of nuclear ambiguity.

International media reports say that Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons. Israel has refused to sign the NPT despite pressure from the international community. However, when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the country might be more flexible.

“Israel has an interest in a chemical-free zone as opposed to a nuclear-free zone,” Eitan Barak said. “That would leave Israel with its alleged monopoly on nuclear weapons.”

John Kerry’s Accomplishment


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State John Kerry. (Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

Many thought that in taking on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Secretary of State John Kerry was embarking on a fool’s errand. But after investing significant time, effort and his own reputation in the process, he was able to bring the parties to the table last week. By achieving that result, Kerry confounded the doubters, at least in the short run. The renewal of talks — even to talk about the talks — is a meaningful success.

One of Kerry’s jobs in the upcoming negotiations — and that of his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk — is to fill the cracks separating the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The Palestinians, for example, want to talk about borders before anything else, while Israel wants to handle all issues at the same time. Kerry reportedly bridged the gap by assuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. views the 1967 lines as the basis for border talks.

Under Kerry’s careful guidance, it was good to see that there was some flexibility on both sides. Israel bent on its position of no preconditions when it agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. At the same time, Israel has not agreed to freeze the building of settlements, a key Palestinian demand that led to the collapse of previous talks in 2010.

We hope that the negotiations will set off a spirit of cooperation between the parties. Even symbolic acts can build relations and trust, such as the meeting at the Knesset last week between Palestinian officials and Israeli legislators, where the flags of Israel and Palestine were placed side by side. That meeting was a first for the Knesset and was encouraging.

But there are always reminders of how tenuous the chances for agreement are. When Abbas
declared he “would not see the presence of a single Israeli” in a future Palestinian state, violating Kerry’s wish to keep the terms of the talks under wraps, he painted a stark and disturbing picture of an ethnically clean Palestine in marked contrast to a more welcoming Israel, where its large Palestinian minority has citizenship.

Kerry reportedly told journalists that he was in a hurry to start negotiations to avoid a “train wreck” at the U.N. in the fall, in which the Palestinians would turn to the international community to impose solutions and punish Israel rather than reach a negotiated settlement. We hope that Israel and the Palestinians agree, but it may fall to the secretary to see that they do. And, to the surprise of many, Kerry seems both interested in and capable of bringing the two sides forward. All through the process, however, Kerry has been careful to keep expectations low. His call for results in nine months is consistent with that approach, and it takes immediate pressure off the negotiations.

Whether the parties will be able to accomplish anything meaningful by next spring is unclear. But even if a full agreement is out of their reach, a partial agreement could still improve relations and help address some of the difficult issues that divide the two sides. In that respect, the process alone has real value. And so long as the two sides are talking, it’s to the good.

For what he has accomplished thus far, we give Kerry a guarded thumbs-up. We hope we can give him a full, celebratory high-five in the not-too-distant future.

At Peace

Earlier this week, Palestinian and Israeli leaders met in Washington to launch a new round of peace negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry hosted an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (right, center) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (next to Linvi) this past Monday at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.

Secretary of State John Kerry hosted an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (right, center) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (next to Linvi) this past Monday at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.

There is a cynical and skeptical Palestinian and Israeli public, but the parties agreed to meet nonetheless.

As Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the media on July 29, he told listeners that he was under no delusions.

“It’s no secret this is going to be a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” he said.

There are many who question Kerry’s intentions. Why now? Who wants this, and who is ready for this?

There is no question that Kerry —and the Obama administration — is ready. The question is whether the
Israeli and Palestinian publics, and their leaders, want it as much as Kerry does.

“One would have doubts,” said Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. “My doubts would be more on the Palestinian side than the Israeli side, though the Israeli side is not jumping up and down either.”

Keinon cited the pre-agreement back-and-forth as an example of how pressured the two parties felt. He said that when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first presented Kerry’s proposal to the PLO, the group said no. Kerry had to fly back and forth between Amman, Jordan and Ramallah to strike the deal.

“The Palestinians didn’t want to do it, but were dragged into it because they were afraid of incurring American wrath if they didn’t come to talk,” said Keinon.

David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, expressed similar sentiments about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He said the prime minister does not want to further isolate Israel by refusing to negotiate, and one can tell from his recent addresses that he is viewing Israel’s willingness to engage in this process not as one based on good will toward the Palestinians but on the self-interest of the Israeli state.

On the American side, however, there’s real value.

“It is an American national security interest to have Arab-Israeli peace,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Keinon explained that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “the only place in the Middle East where the U.S. can be proactive instead of reactive. It could have a beneficial impact for the U.S. if they are able to move something. It is important to America at a time when its whole Middle East policy is, as some would say, muddled.”

Makovsky cautioned, however, that solving this issue will not be an open sesame to solving Syria, Iraq and other conflicts. He also said that while thought-leaders in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world told Kerry the Arab-Israeli conflict is the core issue of instability in the news, if Kerry believes that, he is “being blind to reality.”

If anything, said Makovsky, it takes that card away from the hands of those who use it to carry out terror attacks.

Jewish American organizations have certainly jumped on the bandwagon. Overnight, most of the major Jewish organizations came out with statements supporting the talks.

“This is a great achievement for Secretary of State Kerry, who invested so much time and diplomatic effort in finally bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” said Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “Two states for two people cannot be achieved without strong U.S. leadership, and we are thankful.”

“The resumption of talks …. brings hope of new opportunities to move toward a peaceful resolution and an end of the conflict that has taken such a heavy toll,” said the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement.

But as talks resumed and the parties met in Washington, D.C., one reality became apparent: The two sides likely are not ready to deal with final status issues.

“Do we want to bring both sides to the table and force them to make choices when they are not ready to make them?” asked Keinon.

This is especially true, given the concessions that each side already has had to make — some that are causing upheaval in their home communities.

In Israel, Netanyahu agreed to release 104 prisoners in four batches, many of whom have blood on their hands (see accompanying story, ‘You Start To Give Up,’ on page 32). This decision, which passed in the cabinet by a wide 13-to-7 margin (after a nearly six-hour meeting), has spawned a multitude of rallies — and outcry by victims of terror and their families who stand to see their loved ones’ murderers set free.

“You had a situation where Abbas had been telling the Arab public that unless Netanyahu commits to talks based on the pre-’67 lines, and unless Netanyahu agrees to a complete freeze [of construction] in the settlements, he is not going to deal with him. He had to back off from those demands,” said Makovsky. “So he said, ‘Let me have this.’”

Moreover, Makovksy noted, the Palestinian Authority had to contend with Israel’s trading 1,000 terrorists for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Israeli teenagers get lost in the West Bank all the time, and the residents there don’t hold them hostage; the PA wanted to be rewarded for that.

On the flip side, the Palestinians committed to not bringing any charges against Israel to the U.N. during the course of the negotiations. That frees Israel from some pressure, enabling it to focus international intention on issues such as a nuclear Iran.

Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu are as strong as the leaders of the past (Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin), said Makovsky. With Abbas opposed by a virulent Hamas and both leaders looking over their right shoulders and averse to risk, public support will be vital to move the process forward.

What happens when the two sides hit a brick wall? Hopefully Kerry can massage the thing, and maybe there can be efforts to go to an interim agreement. Maybe.

The challenge is that both publics, said Telhami, don’t believe a two-state solution is possible.

“They may be open to it,” said Telhami, but the majority doesn’t think it is possible anymore. The return to negotiations does not address the profound mistrust and absence of faith in a deal.”

A poll released on July 24 by the Tel Aviv University and the Dialog Institute showed that 39 percent of Israelis would vote for a peace deal if it were brought to a referendum (which was a condition Netanyahu put forth when agreeing to talks), while 16 percent said they would probably vote for a deal. Five percent said they would likely oppose it; 20 percent were unsure.

Worse still, while Israelis report wanting peace, most feel achieving it is unlikely. An Israel public opinion poll, fielded by the Dahaf Institute and released by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution in May, revealed that 51 percent of Israelis are saying that lasting peace with the Palestinians will never happen; 40 percent say it is inevitable but will take more than five years. If the two-state solution collapses, 13 percent think it will lead to the one-state solution, 37 percent say that the status quo will remain, 35 percent expect intense conflict for years to come, and 6 percent expect that the Palestinians will give up.

In the meantime, there is a nine-month window to try to make this work. And at the helm will be former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Assisting Indyk will be Frank Lowenstein.

Nine months?

It’s not a deadline, said Makovsky, but it is the belief that the parties need to sit together long enough to ascertain if this is possible. The Israelis also need assurance that 2010 won’t repeat itself; in that year, the Palestinians sat for three weeks, determined they had heard enough and then went to the U.N.

Telhami said he thinks nine months sounds right. He also thinks that now is the right time.

“The people observing this situation for years are divided into two groups. One says it is too late already for a two-state solution. The other says that soon it is not going to be possible anymore,” he said. “No one says we have all the time in the world.”

See also, ‘You Start To Give Up’