It has been a bizarre week for US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 23 December 2016, the Barack Obama administration narrowly avoided becoming the first since Harry Truman’s to leave office without a single United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israel to its credit. Given that Washington has spent the past eight years relentlessly shielding what Secretary of State John Kerry on 28 December termed “the most right wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” from international scrutiny it would have been a fitting finale.
In the event, the United States neither supported nor vetoed Resolution 2334, with the result that the Security Council was able to unanimously confirm that all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, including those in East Jerusalem, are illegal and collectively constitute “a flagrant violation under international law.” It was a rare victory for an international community that has been consistently thwarted by Barack Obama’s limitless indulgence for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s insatiable appetite for Palestinian land.
The Security Council additionally called upon member states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” With that single phrase, half a century of Israeli effort to normalize the occupation by way of countless faits accompli and legitimize its presence beyond the Green Line vanished into thin air. It seems improbable that those who unlike the US voted for this resolution, will ignore this phrase and neglect to examine how it might be translated into practical measures. Particularly so as Netanyahu petulantly informed the international community his government would continue to violate the ban on settlement expansion, and Donald Trump prepares to douse the fire with gasoline.
Then, on 28 December, US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a seventy-minute address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all its obligatory political correctness, replete with condemnations of Palestinians for refusing to be passively and silently occupied, it contained the harshest words directed at Israel since his predecessor James Baker in 1990 similarly questioned its willingness to make peace with the Palestinians. To his credit, Kerry openly used the emotive phrase “separate but unequal”—albeit to describe a dystopian future rather than the very real present—and in what is apparently a first for a serving US official referred to the “nakba” and explained that it is Palestinian for “catastrophe.”
But where Baker demonstrated seriousness of purpose by subsequently reducing the flow of American assistance to Israel and effectively forcing Yitzhak Shamir into retirement, Kerry bragged about his administration’s unprecedented generosity to “the most right wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements”. Attempting to sound more like an interested spectator than the chief diplomat of the state whose acts of commission and omission over the past half century have perpetuated this crisis, he plaintively resorted to the tired saw that Washington cannot want peace more than the occupiers it enables or the occupied who do not have a choice in the matter.
Kerry concluded his speech by enumerating six principles Washington believes should guide the search for peace. These are broadly consistent with the long-standing US interpretation of a two-state settlement, even if containing an update here and an elaboration there.
Which raises several pertinent questions: Since there is effectively nothing new in Kerry’s principles, and Israel’s attitude towards them has presumably been known to Kerry since or shortly after his “first trip to Israel as a young senator in 1986” about which he waxed so sentimentally, why did he do nothing to force “the most right wing [government] in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements” to accept them during the past four years, and refrain from criticising the government rejecting them until the final days of his tenure?
Why were we instead forced to put up with the charade of negotiations he sponsored, whose only purpose was to serve as diplomatic cover for the further expansion of illegal settlements which according to Kerry “have nothing to do with Israel’s security” and are there for the express purpose of turning the occupied territories into “small parcels that could never constitute a real state”?
If, to the contrary, Kerry’s eureka moment arrived only this Christmas, and he felt the need to speak out in order to preserve the two-state framework from the determined assaults of not only Israel’s extremists but also American ones waiting in the wings to detonate America’s Middle East diplomacy, why refrain from the obvious step of recognizing Palestinian statehood?
[A version of this article was initially published on the website of the London Review of Books.]