In his UN Security Council speech earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry finally delivered some hard truths which the Obama administration was too afraid to share with Americans and Israelis until its last month in office. It was a remarkable admission that the president and secretary of State, operating in our current miserable political environment, could not tell us what they really thought about Israel-Palestine – for all the years they have been in office.
As Secretary Kerry said on Wednesday, nothing in his speech was new. All of it was readily apparent and known to Obama in 2009 and to Kerry when he was in the Senate and when he became Secretary of State in 2013. The belated candor Wednesday, while welcome for its substance, should be a wakeup call for the American people. If we don’t change our dysfunctional political and electoral system so that it is no longer impossible for well-intentioned leaders to level with the American people, we will not be a democracy worthy of the name. That means getting the big money out of politics. It means adopting a new paradigm of elections and campaign finance. It means no longer kowtowing to the billionaire class of donors like Haim Saban on the left and Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers on the right. It means public financing of campaigns, and millions of “little guys” giving $25 or $50 or $100 of their hard-earned wages to the candidates of their choice. We need to empower our president to tell us the hard truths throughout his time in office, so we as citizens can knowledgeably empower him or her (and the Congress) to make correct decisions on the most important and controversial of our foreign and domestic affairs.
Albeit late, we can be thankful that Kerry, with Obama’s blessing, finally did give us the benefit of his experience on a conflict which must be resolved in order for both Israel and the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to stabilize and advance, and for us to finally begin to unburden ourselves of the obligations we have to clean up the mess we have made of much of the Middle East. The crux of the lesson he imparted, borne of four years of intensive labor there, is that peace can only come when “the core needs of both sides” are satisfied — when both sides are willing to satisfy the essential needs of the other.
While Kerry cast his speech as though the two-state solution (“2SS”) was still breathing, the facts on the ground to which he referred actually demonstrate that the 2SS is long past saving. There is simply no way to create a contiguous viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem containing almost 600,000 Jewish settlers, located in places designed precisely to prevent the establishment of such a state. Between the settlements, the outposts, and the ribbon of highways and walls, the West Bank has effectively been carved up into cantons. It would take a civil war to uproot hundreds of thousands of settlers who do not want to move, dead set on creating a Greater Israel ― Jewish dominion over all the land of Israel-Palestine. They have their own legal, administrative, political and economic infrastructure, which is not going away. And frankly, even if it were possible, there is now little support for it in Israel. The Israeli government is certainly not for it, and there is no longer a large Israeli peace movement pushing for it. If Israel did not seriously pursue the Saudi Peace Initiative, endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 and again in 2007, when it was promised full normalization and peaceful relations with every Arab and Moslem country in the region if Israel withdrew from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel is not going to be persuaded to do so now without enormous outside pressure by the entire world. So if, as Kerry said, the Quartet and the UN agree with the Palestinians that any Palestinian state must be contiguous and viable and that the 1967 lines with only slight changes must be the basis of any 2SS, but Israel will not agree to return to those lines, there can and will be no 2SS.
“Israel’s strategy to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state in which Palestinians could live in freedom and dignity, free of Israeli domination, has succeeded.”
Kerry therefore told us some hard truths but not the whole truth, which is that Israel’s strategy to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state in which Palestinians could live in freedom and dignity, free of Israeli domination, has succeeded. There is not going to be a 2SS solution. But the fundamentalist idea of a Greater Israel, privileging Jews and subjugating Palestinians, is ultimately untenable, as Kerry said. The Palestinians will never accept it, and they will continue to resist. The Arab world will not accept it, and never grant Israel peace and stability for as long as it pursues that dream. The entire world, other than the United States, will continue to reject it, and despite the election of Donald Trump, for whatever period his misbegotten Administration lasts, the American people, both Jews and Christians, will ultimately not accept it because it is inconsistent with our democratic values, and frankly with Judeo-Christian moral and religious values. Ultimately, American support will wither for this kind of Jewish state. And when American protection ends, Israel will suffer the isolation and sanction of the entire world, as South Africa did before it. This was Kerry’s explicit warning and core message.
So where does this leave Jews and Palestinians? What are the alternatives to Greater Israel or two states living side by side in peace and security? Can we devise an alternative vision for the core needs of the two peoples? Is there an alternative political arrangement that meets the fundamental need for Israeli Jews to live in a peaceful and secure Jewish homeland in the heart of the Arab and Moslem world, where their political and religious rights are guaranteed in perpetuity? Can that same political arrangement meet the fundamental need of Palestinians to live in freedom, dignity and security, in the same state which is also their national homeland?
With these questions in mind, if you look again at Secretary Kerry’s speech, shorn of its 2SS aspects, focusing on the fundamental principles he outlined for the achievement of peace and security between the two peoples, there are some reasons to think that the answer could be yes. He said there must be firm, full and equal rights for both peoples, no matter where they live in the two states. He acknowledged that 1.7 million Palestinians live in Israel and must be free and equal, with both sides upholding full equal rights for all their respective citizens. This fundamental principle is not only every bit as consistent with one binational state as with two separate states, but it is probably easier to achieve in one state with a single national constitutional framework.
Kerry then said Jerusalem must be the international capital of both states, with all religions approving, and all religious sites protected. He also said that the basic national aspirations of both peoples to have Jerusalem as its capital should be vindicated without dividing the City. Accomplishing this second fundamental principle would be much easier in one state.
“If the two-state solution is dead... the conversation about a feasible vision of such a state which meets the core needs of both peoples must now begin.”
Kerry next said there must be a full solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. He emphasized compensation, and an acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering. He mentioned the Nakba, the 1948 exodus or expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages — perhaps the first time a senior American diplomat has given public voice and recognition to that catastrophe — but he surely was thinking also of their suffering under military occupation. This truth and reconciliation work would have to begin at the start of serious negotiations about any solution, but is likely better completed in the context of one state rather than two. He said that there must be options and assistance finding permanent homes, with the world providing support, financial and otherwise. He did not mention the right of return, but some right of return, enshrined in an early UN Security Council resolution, has been the subject of discussion for decades now. Were there one state rather than two, with constitutional and international guarantees protecting the national and religious rights of both peoples in perpetuity, it would be easier to resolve the thorny issue of the return of those Jews and Palestinians in the diaspora who might want to do so. With both peoples constitutionally protected living together in one state, there might be fewer concerns about altering its “fundamental character,” depending upon the political structure selected for the binational state.
Kerry noted that any Palestinian state must not have a military, and there must be full satisfaction of Israel’s security needs. How that would be accomplished in two states, he did not say. But if the Palestinians are ultimately amenable to such a defenseless state, they may also be amenable to vindicating and guaranteeing their national, political and religious rights in one state, in which the top military leaders are Jewish.
Two other important factors were alluded to in the speech. First, Palestinian leadership and governance is widely acknowledged to be inefficient, divided and corrupt. It is not at all clear that the Palestinian people would be better served by such leadership rather than, say, the leaders of the Joint List, the Israeli Arab party in the Knesset. Second, Kerry made clear that the Middle East is rapidly changing, that Egypt and Jordan are willing to coordinate on security issues with Israel, that Israel is covertly and even openly cooperating with key Arab states like Saudi Arabia, and that the time is ripe for Israel to achieve its life-long dream of peaceful and normal relations with that world if only there were genuine interest in normalizing its relations with the Palestinians as well. If the 2SS is dead, this can and must be done in one binational state, and the conversation about a feasible vision of such a state which meets the core needs of both peoples must now begin.