Secretary of State John Kerry’s valedictory speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the very same folks who had just finished hyperventilating over the U.S. abstention on a Security Council resolution a few days earlier.
The speech, itself, was divided into three parts. Kerry opened with an accounting of all that the Obama administration had done for Israel in the past eight years. And he closed with a list of principles he said should serve as the basis for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace. The largest part, the middle, was a passionate indictment of Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—the most comprehensive critique ever given by an American political leader.
During the past 50 years, successive U.S. administrations have done their best to avoid public criticism of Israel. There have been momentary outbursts of displeasure. But, for the most part, when U.S. officials wanted to challenge Israel’s behavior, they prodded, cajoled, pleaded their case, or resorted to offering “incentives.” They have never “taken Israel to the wood shed.” That’s what Kerry did and that was what prompted the reaction.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered the political equivalent of tantrum even before Kerry finished his remarks. President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his displeasure. And members of Congress, from both parties, rushed to issue statements pledging their full support for Israel and its leader, while roundly criticizing their own Secretary of State.
Why the hysteria? As Kerry, himself acknowledged, the speech was not going to change realities on the ground nor would it force the Israelis to alter their behavior. And, as Donald Trump tweeted, with only a few weeks left before the end of the Obama administration, it is clear that Israel is not going to pay a price in terms of its relationship with Washington.
None of these reactions, of course, paid any attention to the opening or closing parts of Kerry’s speech. Israel and its supporters have made a habit of treating as their due the aid and support they have received from the Obama administration. And, as for the “Kerry Principles,” they were bound to be ignored, since everyone knows what they are but see no possibility that they will be realized.
What set off the firestorm was that Kerry dared to publicly and forcefully criticize Israeli policy. And that was what the overreaction intended to snuff out. The standard Israeli approach used in situations of this sort is to launch a campaign of intimidation designed to pummel the offender into submission and to discourage others from taking similar course.
I remember back in 2003, in the lead up to the 2004 presidential primaries, then Senator Kerry addressed our Arab American Institute national conference poignantly describing the daily hardships faced by Palestinians under occupation. He concluded his remarks by condemning the “separation wall” that Israel was constructing in the West Bank, calling it “a barrier to peace.” For weeks, Kerry was pummeled by pro-Israeli activists and donors until he finally relented and apologized for his remarks.
Much the same happened with Justice Richard Goldstone, one of the co-authors of the United Nations report on Israeli violations of human rights and international law in its 2008/9 onslaught of Gaza. I met the man and heard him describe how painful it had been for him to see what Israel had done and then feel compelled to condemn their behavior. The response from Israel and Congress was intense and unrelenting. Most critics denounced “Goldstone” without even reading the report. Facts didn’t matter, snuffing out criticism and making the critic pay a price did.
After being shamefully battered and even denied entry to Israel to visit his family, Justice Goldstone relented and wrote a Washington Post op-ed apologizing for some of the language he had used to describe Israeli behavior. At that point Israel announced victory and called off the attack.
This past summer, my colleagues and I went through somewhat the same experience after being appointed by Bernie Sanders to serve on the Democratic Party platform drafting committee. There was an effort to discredit and silence us even before the platform deliberations began. They didn’t need to turn the heat up too high because the Clinton campaign made it clear that they would brook no criticism of Israel in the document. As a result, our efforts to add the words “occupation” and “settlements” were in vain.
And now comes Kerry’s State Department speech in which he didn’t just criticize Israel’s occupation and settlement policy, he also demolished the arguments Israelis use to defend their actions. At the same time, he provided a tutorial on the damage done to peace by settlements. Kerry’s speech will not change Israeli policy. And with Trump in the Oval Office three weeks, the speech most certainly will not affect a change in U.S. policy. But what Kerry has done, if he doesn’t relent, is shatter the taboo that has sheltered Israel from official criticism, while laying out the arguments needed to rebut Israeli efforts to justify their policies.
To some, especially Palestinians, this may seem like “too little, too late”. But as someone who has been a part of the effort to create an American debate on Israeli policies, Kerry’s intervention is both welcome, validating, and empowering. He laid down markers that should help liberals and progressives define a policy agenda on the Israel-Palestine conflict—exactly what we need as we enter the challenges of the Trump era.
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