John Kerry Nails It: Realities of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

December 30, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: John KerryMiddle East PeaceMiddle EastDiplomacyIsrael

John Kerry Nails It: Realities of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

There is huge asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Secretary Kerry—although striving to observe the usual convention about casting comparable blame on both sides, and devoting a significant part of his speech to offenses and shortcomings on the Palestinian side—touched on this lightly at a couple of points in his speech, such as in quoting the pertinent observation of Shimon Peres: “The original mandate gave the Palestinians 48 percent, now it’s down to 22 percent. I think 78 percent is enough for us.”  The asymmetry is patently huge regarding the instruments of power, including instruments to inflict armed violence.  It is fundamentally huge in the sense that one side is the occupier and the other side is the occupied.  It is within the power of an occupier, but not the occupied, to end an occupation.

This asymmetry sheds light on the attitudes of each side toward negotiations and who does or does not want to negotiate in good faith, a subject on which there have been many accusations with little regard for the historical record.  One can cut through the cloud of accusations by reflecting on what each side would have to gain from not negotiating in good faith.  Most Israelis currently don’t have it all that bad with continuation of the status quo, and their rightist leaders evidently think they can keep a good thing going indefinitely despite the aforementioned demographic and geographic facts.  The Palestinians, by contrast, are obviously the big losers in a continuation of the status quo: no state, no self-determination, no end to their subjugation, and no unilateral means to end any of this.  They have ample reason to negotiate seriously, because they know a negotiated peace is the only way out of their current predicament.

The asymmetry also gives perspective to Israeli complaints, a crescendo of which followed last week’s Security Council resolution, about being singled out for criticisms not directed at others.  As a reading of this resolution suggests, if Israel receives criticism that others don’t, it is because Israel is doing things that others don’t.  There is no doubt that if Palestinians or other Arabs were colonizing land that they had seized through military force from Israel, such colonization would be every bit as much the target of critical Security Council resolutions.  But Palestinians aren’t colonizing seized land, and as Kerry noted, they are being kept from building even on land that is supposed to be theirs.

U.S. interests differ substantially from Israeli interests, especially as the latter are defined by the current Israeli government.  A cottage industry has grown up over the past couple of years devoted to highlighting bad chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu, but personalities and chemistry between leaders have little to do with strain in U.S.-Israeli relations.  Sure, dealing with the likes of Netanyahu tends to stimulate personal irritation, but that is hardly specific to Obama.  It was Bill Clinton who, after his first meeting with the importunate Israeli prime minister, said with exasperation, “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?”  The main strands of Israeli policy—and certainly almost everything having to do with the settlement program and occupation policies in general, which constitute a very large part of what Israeli policy is about—are not only incongruent with U.S. interests but directly opposed to them.  This will be true as long as those policies continue, even if the prime minister were to get a personality transplant.

There is every reason to believe that the United States and Israel can be good friends, especially when bearing in mind that the current right-wing government represents only one part of what is a spectrum of diverse views within Israel.  And friends don’t let friends drive drunk. As Friedman observes, it’s unfortunate that President-elect Trump is “passing Israel another bottle of wine”.  Or as Secretary Kerry put it, “Regrettably, some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles – even after urging again and again that the policy must change. Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”

Commentary often seen in the opinion pages that seems to assume a perfectly harmonious no-daylight-between-us relationship as what should be normal in U.S.-Israel relations, and that searches for missteps by the U.S. administration of the day as the reason the relationship is not perfectly harmonious, disregards the serious underlying conflict of interests.  This conflict of interests routinely gets disguised with the term “ally”—a term that usually refers to mutually beneficial cooperation and commitment but in this case is applied to a one-way relationship in which enormous largesse in one direction is met in the other direction by such behavior as undermining the patron’s foreign policy initiatives and interfering in its internal politics.  Netanyahu’s government seems to go out of its way to poke a stick in the eye of its benefactor, with the settlement program one of its favorite sticks.  Neither incorrect use of a term not tweets about how harmony will break out on January 20 can hide such realities.