Israel fights daily for its very existence and the Palestinians want them gone. A smaller and smaller number on each side still think they can get along with the other side – just establish an actual Palestinian state with real borders and all that, and then work out the details of that original 1947 UN Partition Plan, a simple plan for something like coexistence. That plan called for an economic union between the two proposed states, and for the protection of religious and minority rights.
How hard can that be? But the current Israeli government, building settlements in any disputed lands and saying, look, that’s Israel now, is not helping much. Angry factions of the Palestinians, lobbing rockets into Israel and occasionally blowing up a bus, don’t make things easier either. Sometimes it’s all-out war. The Israelis always win. The Palestinians seethe. Then it all begins again. For those of us born in 1947 – we’re old now – this has been going on for as long as we have lived.
As noted earlier, there is a lot of history here that now comes down to this. Since their 1967 war with their neighbors, the United States has been telling Israel, as a friend and ally, that building settlements on land they grabbed in that war, in the West Bank and in Gaza, was a bad idea. International law forbids that. Every other nation on earth has said that’s a no-no. One UN resolution after another has condemned these settlements – and the United States has vetoed those. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council we can do that, but that always pisses off every Arab/Muslim nation in the region. That makes matters worse. It actually endangers Israel’s security.
That’s been our position for many decades. Those settlements are a bad idea. Israel sometimes listens and slows down the construction of those for a bit – and then they start again. We cover for them, with our vetoes, but we don’t like it. We say so. Israel takes our three billion a year in military aid and shrugs. This is their business – and now they have our Republicans on their side. Now they have Donald Trump on their side. No UN resolution on those settlements will come to a vote ever again. Russia and China and France and Germany and New Zealand and all the other countries in the world can stuff it. There will be no vote. It will be America and Israel against the world – forever. Screw them all.
A sufficient number of Americans love that sort of thing – that screw-you attitude – enough to make Donald Trump the next president, not the majority of Americans, but we have that odd Electoral College system here. We also currently have Barack Obama as president, for a few more weeks, and John Kerry as secretary of state too. Both of them have worked hard at making the United States a sensible nation. Provoking a regional war that could go worldwide, and could end Israel too, over those settlements, doesn’t seem sensible to them. Bring it on? George Bush regretted saying that about the insurgency in Iraq. That’s dangerous feel-good nonsense. Obama once admitted that his core foreign policy dictum was simple. Don’t do stupid shit. He’s still president, for a few more weeks.
That’s why we suddenly abstained from that new UN vote condemning Israel’s settlements on the West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu was outraged. Israel would stand alone against all the other nations of the world, but this was simply a parting shot from the world of common sense, soon to disappear. Everyone knows what comes next – Trump.
Two years ago, when this came up in another context, Slate’s William Saletan offered this:
Israel and the United States have a long, deep friendship. It’s based on shared interests and values. But it’s no longer clear that the old interests and values are shared. The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.
It’s true that Israelis have other concerns, such as the high cost of housing. But when you set aside an issue, such as the rights of Palestinians, you’re saying it isn’t important to you. It’s also true that it’s easy for Americans like me to talk about this without facing the threat of terrorism. But sometimes distance is helpful. A friend can help you see changes in yourself. The constant pressure of war, terrorism, and peril has hardened Israel’s heart.
There’s also another way to say that. Friends don’t let friends do stupid shit. When they’ve had too much to drink you take away the keys. When your angry teammate, and good friend, tries to punch out the referee, you stand between the two of them. It’s like that.
That’s what friends do. That’s what John Kerry just did:
Secretary of State John Kerry accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday of thwarting peace in the Middle East, speaking with a clarity and harshness almost never heard from American diplomats when discussing one of their closest and strongest allies.
With only 23 days left in his four-year turn as secretary of state, during which he made the search for peace in the Middle East one of his driving missions, Mr. Kerry said the Israeli government was undermining any hope of a two-state solution to its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.
The American vote last week in the United Nations allowing the condemnation of Israel for settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he added, was driven by a desire to save Israel from “the most extreme elements” in its own government.
“The status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation,” Mr. Kerry said, his voice animated.
That’s cold, but that was necessary:
His speech was a powerful admonition after years of tension and frustration, with the Obama administration giving public voice to its long-held concern that Israel was headed off a cliff toward international isolation and was condemning itself to a future of low-level, perpetual warfare with the Palestinians.
In short, don’t go there. Why would you want to? Friends ask that question:
The United States and Israel are in the middle of a breach rarely seen since President Harry S. Truman recognized the fragile Israeli state in May 1948. In a direct response to Mr. Netanyahu’s barb over the weekend that “friends don’t take friends to the Security Council” – a reference to the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from the resolution condemning the building of new settlements in disputed territory – Mr. Kerry said the United States acted out of a deeper understanding of the meaning of its alliance.
“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,” he said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
Of course it’s too late for that:
Toward the end of his 70-minute speech in the State Department’s auditorium, Mr. Kerry acknowledged that Mr. Trump may well abandon the major principles that the United States has used for decades of Middle East negotiations, including the two-state solution that both Republicans and Democrats support. Mr. Trump is nominating a new American ambassador, David M. Friedman, who has broken with even the pretense of supporting a two-state negotiated agreement and has helped fund some of the settlements Mr. Kerry denounced.
That then made this inevitable:
On vacation in Palm Beach, Fla., Mr. Trump posted two Twitter messages rejecting the speech before it was delivered. “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” he wrote on Wednesday morning. After assailing the nuclear deal in Iran and last week’s vote at the Security Council, he said, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
He was soon praised – also on Twitter – by Mr. Netanyahu, who later released a video statement that was unsparingly direct and dismissive of Mr. Kerry.
“The entire Middle East is going up in flames, entire countries are toppling, terrorism is raging and for an entire hour the secretary of state attacks the only democracy in the Middle East,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Maybe Kerry did not notice that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christmas can be celebrated in peace and security. Sadly, none of this interests the secretary of state.”
That may be because celebrating Christmas there, or in Cleveland, is irrelevant in this dispute – even if it was a good line otherwise. Any mention of Christmas always tugs at American heartstrings, even if it comes from a Jewish fellow. Netanyahu knows how to play this game, but so does John Kerry:
Mr. Kerry did make note of the Palestinian violence, the “extremist agenda” of Hamas, and the Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel. All, he said, were at the heart of the conflict. But Mr. Netanyahu’s continued support of settlements, “strategically placed in locations that make two states impossible,” he said, is driving a solution further and further away.
Mr. Kerry argued that Israel, with a growing Arab population, could not survive as both a Jewish state and a democratic state unless it embraced the two-state approach that a succession of American presidents has endorsed.
And then this probably infuriated Netanyahu further:
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, responded to Mr. Kerry’s speech by calling on Israel to freeze housing construction in order to restart negotiations. “The minute the Israeli government agrees to cease all settlement activities, including in and around occupied East Jerusalem, and agree to implement the signed agreements on the basis of mutual reciprocity, the Palestinian leadership stands ready to resume permanent status negotiations,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu has said he is willing to meet Mr. Abbas anytime for talks as long as there are no preconditions.
There’s only one way to read that. Israel is systematically grabbing all their land, in spite of international law in such matters, and there will be no discussion of them getting even one square inch of it back. Mahmoud Abbas can just go pound sand. Otherwise he’ll be glad to chat with Mahmoud Abbas.
The rest was just kind of ordinary:
When Mr. Kerry got to the principles for a future settlement, they were unsurprising. Many date to the 1990s or earlier, and many to past United Nations resolutions.
The principles he described started with a “secure and recognized border between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine,” based on Israel’s withdrawal from territory occupied since the 1967 war and land swaps to “reflect practical realities on the ground.”
A second principle was the creation of a state for the Palestinian people, and a third was a “fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue,” including compensation. There was no mention of a “right of return” for refugees and their descendants forced to leave Israel and the Palestinian territories, back to 1948.
The fourth principle called for Jerusalem to be the recognized capital of both states, which Mr. Kerry said was “the most sensitive issue for both sides.” The fifth was an agreement to satisfy Israel’s security needs while ending its military occupation of Palestinian territories.
This has all been suggested before. This has been discussed over the years, but no more:
Mr. Netanyahu has accused the United States of “orchestrating” the vote, and his aides have said that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama effectively stabbed Israel in the back. Israeli officials have said they have evidence that the United States organized the resolution. Mr. Kerry pushed back at that narrative on Wednesday.
Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, is biding his time and waiting for Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama to move on. Israeli leaders postponed plans on Wednesday to move ahead with new housing in East Jerusalem, just hours before the speech.
Trump won’t stab Israel in the back, but Thomas Friedman suggests that Netanyahu has it all wrong:
For those of you confused over the latest fight between President Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, let me make it simple: Barack Obama and John Kerry admire and want to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel. I have covered this issue my entire adult life and have never met two U.S. leaders more committed to Israel as a Jewish democracy.
But they are convinced – rightly – that Netanyahu is a leader who is forever dog-paddling in the middle of the Rubicon, never ready to cross it. He is unwilling to make any big, hard decision to advance or preserve a two-state solution if that decision in any way risks his leadership of Israel’s right-wing coalition or forces him to confront the Jewish settlers, who relentlessly push Israel deeper and deeper into the West Bank.
This isn’t rocket science:
The settlers’ goal is very clear, as Kerry put it on Wednesday: to strategically place settlements “in locations that make two states impossible,” so that Israel will eventually annex all of the West Bank. Netanyahu knows this will bring huge problems, but his heart is with the settlers, and his passion is with holding power – at any cost. So in any crunch, he sides with the settlers, and they keep pushing.
Obama ordered the US to abstain on the UN resolution condemning the settlements (three months after Obama forged a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package for Israel – the largest for any US ally ever) in hopes of sparking a debate inside Israel and to prevent it from closing off any chance of a two-state solution.
For eight years, the Obama administration has been doing everything it can to help Israel, but not necessarily Netanyahu’s Israel. Republicans, unlike most Jewish-Americans, don’t make that distinction, but it is important:
Obama and Kerry rightly believe that Israel is driving drunk toward annexing the West Bank and becoming either a bi-national Arab-Jewish state or some Middle Eastern version of 1960s South Africa, where Israel has to systematically deprive large elements of its population of democratic rights to preserve the state’s Jewish character.
That latter option is the problem:
Israel is clearly now on a path toward absorbing the West Bank’s 2.8 million Palestinians. There are already 1.7 million Arabs living in Israel, so putting these two Arab populations together would constitute a significant minority with a higher birthrate than that of Israeli Jews – who number 6.3 million – posing a demographic and democratic challenge.
That’s putting it mildly. Internal rebellion is inevitable. So is intervention by hostile states in the region. Friedman thinks that Netanyahu should think this through:
My criticism of Netanyahu is not that he won’t simply quit all the West Bank; it is that he refuses to show any imagination or desire to build workable alternatives that would create greater separation and win Israel global support, such as radical political and economic autonomy for Palestinians in the majority of the West Bank, free of settlements, while Israel still controls the borders and the settlements close to it.
But that’s unlikely:
Bibi never lays down a credible peace plan that truly puts the ball in the Palestinians’ court. And when someone like Obama exposes that – and Bibi comes under intense criticism from the liberal half of Israel, which sees the country getting more and more isolated and less and less democratic – Bibi just calls Obama an enemy of Israel and caves to the settlers. US Jewish “leaders” then parrot whatever Bibi says.
Those local Jewish “leaders” here are, of course, an odd lot. Jewish-Americans vote Democratic, overwhelmingly, and may find Netanyahu an embarrassment, but they might not matter:
More worrisome is the fact that President-elect Donald Trump – who could be a fresh change agent – is letting himself get totally manipulated by right-wing extremists, and I mean extreme. His ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, has compared Jews who favor a two-state solution to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. I’ve never heard such a vile slur from one Jew to another.
Trump also has no idea how much he is being manipulated into helping Iran and ISIS. What is Iran’s top goal when it comes to Israel? That Israel never leaves the West Bank and that it implants Jewish settlers everywhere there.
That would keep Israel in permanent conflict with Palestinians and the Muslim world, as well as many Western democracies and their college campuses. It would draw all attention away from Iran’s own human rights abuses and enable Iran and ISIS to present themselves as the leading Muslim protectors of Jerusalem – and to present America’s Sunni Arab allies as lackeys of an extremist Israel. This would create all kinds of problems for these Arab regimes. A West Bank on fire would become a recruitment tool for ISIS and Iran.
Someone is getting played here:
One day Trump will wake up and discover that he was manipulated into becoming the co-father, with Netanyahu, of an Israel that is either no longer Jewish or no longer democratic. He will discover that he was Bibi’s chump.
So it comes down to taking away the keys:
What a true friend of Israel and foe of Iran would do today is just what Obama and Kerry tried – assure Israel long-term military superiority to the tune of $38 billion, but, unlike Trump, who is just passing Israel another bottle of wine, tell our dear ally that it’s driving drunk, needs to stop the settlements and apply that amazing Israeli imagination to preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Good luck with that, but Peter Baker sums up what we have now:
Palestinians live under military occupation surrounded by miles of walls and fences. Israelis build more homes for themselves while their forces raid communities, control movement through checkpoints and respond to provocations with decisive force.
Israelis live under the constant threat of terrorism, enduring sometimes daily assaults by attackers wielding knives or driving cars into crowds. The Palestinian authorities venerate such “martyrs” and compensate their families financially.
That’s unsustainable, and then there’s the current alternative:
Some of Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic critics said he had brought this on himself. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote on Twitter that most of the world and Israel agreed with Mr. Kerry.
“Bibi, on verge of messianic abyss, determined to go forward,” he added.
There’s a lot of that going around. We have Trump, and a parting shot from the world of common sense, soon to disappear.