Secretary Kerry's Saban Forum Speech: Save the Two-State Solution

Secretary of State John Kerry on December 5, 2015 delivered a courageous speech at the Brookings Institute's Saban Forum, cautioning against the emergence of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, as a result of the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts. 

Following is the Israeli-Palestinian portion of the Secretary's speech. For the full text click here 

Diplomatically our support for Israel also remains as rock solid as we continue to oppose any effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state or to pass biased resolutions against it in international bodies.  I have personally been on the phone lobbying, whether it’s a human rights commission or council or individuals, UN, you name it.  We are constantly fighting that battle, but I’ll get to something about that in a little bit in my comments.

Just last month I went to New York and I spoke a very moving event commemorating Chaim Herzog’s extraordinary speech 40 years ago denouncing the UN General Assembly’s infamous Zionism is Racism resolution – one of the finest speeches I’ve ever heard, both his and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s.  Patrick Moynihan called it the day of infamy when the abomination of anti-Semitism was given the appearance of international sanctions.  And to equate the national movement of the Jewish people with racism and Nazism, as the resolution in fact did, was not only absurd, it was a sad day for the United Nations itself.  It brought people together to seek nothing less than to grant a global license to hate.  And I am delighted that Bougie Herzog is here.  Bougie, we honor your father, President Herzog, because he spoke the truth, and so must we.  Anti-Semitism is there today, it’s a threat today in Europe, in the Middle East, in parts of Asia, and in every part of our body politics.  And the imperative to identify it no matter what the euphemisms are that are used to mask it, to rebut it and to defeat it, is our responsibility – all of us – and we accept it.

So that, my friends, is a lesson taught to us by history which we must never, ever forget.  But history also teaches us the importance of peace, because peace is ultimately the best guarantor of security.  The United States is deeply committed to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.  And we are also committed to an independent and viable Palestinian state where Palestinians can live with freedom and dignity.  The only way to achieve that is through a negotiated solution that creates two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.

Now, I know how complicated it is today.  I’ve been out there enough times.  I think I understand it.  And the United States remains deeply committed to helping the parties realize the vision that we just articulated that the prime minister and everybody has accepted.  It’s a vision that we put out there not for our sake, but because it’s the best hope for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

But ultimately, it’s up to both sides to take the steps necessary to make peace possible.  So today I want to talk about some of the difficult questions and hard choices that everybody faces, because there are no easy answers here.  It will take leadership.  It takes courage.  And both sides have to make decisions that could have a profound impact on their future and on the future of the entire region.

First, the violence must stop.  Nobody should ever be subjected to attacks as they go about their daily lives, and there is no justification for violence targeted against civilians now or ever, and we condemn these outrageous attacks in the strongest possible terms.  President Obama has made clear that Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend its citizens.  And we have worked hard to try to find a way to end the violence.  We have stressed the importance of refraining from inflammatory rhetoric and to refrain from steps that obviously are going to have an impact on other people’s perceptions.  We need to have people exercise restraint and take affirmative steps to reduce tensions.  And I have called on the Palestinian leadership publicly and privately to do everything possible to combat all forms of incitement and to explicitly condemn terrorist attacks.  I have urged Israeli leaders to bring those responsible for terrorism against Palestinian civilians to justice, and I applaud the recent arrest that was made in that regard.

And we worked with Jordanian and Israeli leaders to lower the tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that were fueling much of the violence.  Last week, because of our concern about the increased violence, I again visited Jerusalem and the West Bank.  A terrorist attack had just tragically claimed the life of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old American student from my home state of Massachusetts.  And President Obama and I both talked to his parents and both of us as fathers had brought home to us the horrendous, incomprehensible, unfathomable level of grief a parent feels for the loss of a child, and particularly under those circumstances.  We also had brought home to us the urgency of preventing the senseless loss of more innocent lives, any innocent lives.

Now, I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu describe the fears Israelis live with on a daily basis, and I heard his solemn obligation to provide them with basic security.  And President Abbas spoke more despairingly, my friends, than I have ever heard him about the sense of hopelessness that the Palestinian people feel.  And I have been traveling over there since the 1980s and I’ve spent hours, probably more hours with Abu Mazen than any other leader in America today.  I’ve had a lot of discussions with both sides over the past three years, and let me tell you the level of distrust between them has never been more profound.

Israelis believe the Palestinians will never accept Israel’s right to live in peace as a Jewish state and that they are teaching hate and glorifying terrorists, and that a peace agreement would just turn the West Bank into another Gaza.  I’ve heard all of that.  The Palestinians believe this Israeli government will never give them a state and that their land is being systematically taken away and the daily indignations of occupation will never end and that there is impunity for attacks against Palestinians.  That’s what they believe. 

Here’s what I know: The Israeli and Palestinian people deserve better, but the current path is not leading to a more peaceful future.  I am concerned that unless significant efforts are made to change the dynamic – and I mean significant – it will only bring more violence, more heartbreak, and more despair.  That’s a fear, not a threat.  And changing course will require real courage, leadership, and difficult choices.  The Palestinians must decide what kind of future they want for their people. 

This forum focuses on U.S.-Israel relations, but I want to highlight for you nevertheless some of the key questions now facing the Palestinians.  How would ceasing security coordination and cooperation and dissolving the Palestinian Authority, which some over there have suggested, how would that bring them closer to peace?  Isn’t it the Palestinian people who would then suffer most if their leadership took those steps?  Do they really believe that boycotts and efforts to de-legitimize Israel or pass biased resolutions in international bodies are going to help them achieve a Palestinian state?  President Abbas has long been committed to nonviolence.  Don’t forget that.  But are Palestinian officials really doing everything possible to prevent all forms of incitement?  Don’t these terrorist attacks against innocent civilians deserve public condemnation?  And how can Israelis be assured that the Palestinians are truly prepared to end the conflict and allow them to live in peace as part of a two-state solution?  How do they address Israel’s concerns about not creating another situation like Gaza in the West Bank? 

Israel also faces important questions and difficult choices.  And by the way, there are answers to the issues of Gaza in the West Bank.  Believe me, there are all kinds of security and other kinds of steps that could be taken, and buffers and guarantees and oversight and cooperation.  Countless answers if you want to find them. 

Israelis are appropriately debating some of these issues.  Some officials in Israel have reportedly argued that it’s not in Israel’s interest to even have a Palestinian Authority.  Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear he does not wish for the collapse of the PA because despite serious differences with Abu Mazen he recognizes that the alternative could be worse.  Nobody can tell you what the alternative is in a world buzzing with Daesh and jihad and Hamas.  Some have dismissed this possibility.  But circumstances I believe force us to consider it seriously because there are valid questions as to how long the PA will survive if the current situation continues.  Mark my words.

Remember there are some 30,000 Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, and Israel’s security officials acknowledge their key role in preventing the situation from spiraling out of control, including by the way during the turmoil of three wars with Gaza.  It didn’t blow up in the West Bank.  Without the PA security forces, the IDF could be forced to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to the West Bank indefinitely to fill the void.  Are Israelis prepared for the consequences this would have for their children and grandchildren who serve in the IDF when the inevitable friction leads to confrontation and violence? 

What are the financial and strategic costs when Israel is now already facing new threats in the region?  Are Israelis ready to accept the heightened risk that chaos, lawlessness, and desperation can allow terrorists and extremists to take hold of and fill the vacuum and take advantage of?  Without the PA Israel would also shoulder the responsibility for providing basic services in the West Bank, including for maintaining schools, hospitals, and law and order.  Are Israelis ready to make up for over a billion dollars a year in assistance that the PA would no longer see provided by the international community because it’s no longer there?  What about the additional billion dollars in development-related assistance, most of it for the West Bank?  What would happen if the Palestinian economy and private sector collapsed under the pressure and there was widespread unemployment and poverty? 

This brings us to a broader question.  If there is a risk that the PA could collapse, and it is in Israel’s interest for it to in fact survive, as the prime minister suggested, should more therefore not be done to help sustain it?  This really goes to the heart of a bigger debate, because the truth is that many of those arguing against the PA simply don’t believe in two states.  The prime minister has been clear that he does not want a bi-national state and that he remains committed to the vision of two states for two peoples.  But at the same time, many current Israeli ministers have been equally clear that they oppose a Palestinian state – not just now but ever. 

So my friends, we’ve got to be clear-eyed about this.  We can’t come to a forum like this, we can’t have meetings, we can’t go back and forth and maintain the norms of diplomacy and pretend.  We have to be honest about what a one-state solution actually looks like.  First, nobody should be lulled into a forced complacency that the PA would still be there under those circumstances.  In fact, the chances that it would collapse increase over time every day now, let alone what would happen if that were the direction you’re moving in.  And it would collapse sooner rather than later under those circumstances along with all of the risks and worst outcomes.

Let’s focus on a few other critical questions that that approach raises.  I’m just asking questions.  How does Israel possibly maintain its character as a Jewish and democratic state when from the river to the sea there would not even be a Jewish majority?  Then next question: Would millions of Palestinians be given the basic rights of Israeli citizens including the right to vote, or would they be relegated to a permanent underclass?  Would the Israelis and Palestinians living in such close quarters have segregated roads and transportation systems with different laws applying in the Palestinian enclaves?  Would anyone really believe they were being treated equally?  What would the international response be to that, my friends, or to a decision by Israel to unilaterally annex large portions of the West Bank?  How could Israel ever have true peace with its neighbors, as the Arab Peace Initiative promises and as every Arab leader I have met with in the last year reinforces to me as recently as in the last month that they are prepared to do?

But how will they do that if there is no chance for a two-state solution?  How will the Arab street in today’s world let that go by?  And wouldn’t Israel risk being in perpetual conflict with millions of Palestinian living in the middle of a state?  I think the answers ought to make it clear to all the one-state solution is no solution at all for a secure Jewish democratic Israel living in peace.  It is simply not a viable option.  And no less a statesman and one of the men I admire the most in the world, one of the most eloquent people that I’ve ever heard talk and one of the great warriors for peace as Shimon Peres put it himself: Anyone who rejects the two-state solution won’t bring a one-state solution; they will instead bring one war, not one state.

So my friends, that again brings us to a broader question.  If the two-state solution is the only real option, what more can actually be done to advance it?  These are important questions for all of us who care deeply about Israel, and I do care deeply.  I had a 100 percent voting record over 28-plus years and I remember fondly every visit I’ve ever made over there and I have great friends, great friends. 

But I ask people to answer this question as honestly as possible.  And this is not an abstract issue that you can put off for some distant day.  The status quo is simply not sustainable.  And the fact is that current trends including violence, settlement activity, demolitions, are imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.  And that trend has to be reversed in order to prevent this untenable one-state reality from taking hold.  I can’t stress this enough.  The terrorist attacks are devastating the hopes of Israelis who want to believe that peace is possible, and the violence must stop.  Yes. 

But Palestinian hopes are also being dashed by what they see happening every day.  They’re focused on a reality that few others see, that the transition to greater Palestinian civil authority contemplated by the Oslo process has in many ways been reversed.  In fact, nearly all of Area C which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank is effectively restricted for any Palestinian development, much of it claimed for Israeli state land or for settlement councils.  We understand there was only one Palestinian building permit granted for all of Area C all of last year.  And settler outposts are regularly being legalized while demolition of the Palestinian structures is increasing.  You get it?  At the same time the settler population in the West Bank has increased by tens of thousands over just the past five years including many in remote areas. 

Settlements are absolutely no excuse for violence.  No, they’re not.  And we are clear about that.  But the continued settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make separating from the Palestinians much more difficult.  There are no easy answers, but we can’t stop trying to find solutions that move us closer to peace.  And that is why President Obama has called on both sides to demonstrate with actions and policies a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.  The Quartet has suggested steps on the ground that would reverse current trends and resume the Oslo transition in ways that do not affect Israel’s security at all.  And I want to stress that point.  Increasing Palestinian civil authority does not happen at the expense of Israeli security.  In fact, strengthening the Palestinian economy will enhance security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.  And the Palestinians must also meet their commitments including combatting violence and incitement, improving governance, and building their institutions. 

These steps, my friends, can be a very important beginning, and they won’t ever take the place, however, of a real, credible political horizon for two states that meets the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.  But these steps could help begin to reduce tensions, build some trust, restore a measure of hope, open up new possibilities, and hopefully create some political space for people to be able to make bigger, more critical decisions.  Again, I repeat, I know these are difficult decisions.  I understand why Israelis feel besieged.  I understand why Palestinians feel there’s no hope.  And there will always be a reason not to act, but you have to keep those questions I put to you in front of you every moment of that time.

Now is the time to see beyond the politics and the pressures of the moment and to look to the future.  Both sides need to act in the long-term best interests of their people, not as a kind of concession.  It is not a concession to be doing things that make you safer and broaden the political space to make choices and to begin to give justice and sense of rectitude to agreements which have been signed.  And if everybody keeps waiting for the other person to move first, the risk is the situation spirals downwards and it makes it harder to ever be that first person to move. 

And we obviously hope that both sides will choose a path that leads towards peace.  We want both to show that they are serious, and we will be there every step of the way in every way possible to support them in that effort.  We’re ready to bring Jordan, Egypt, the rest of the Gulf states, others to the table for a regional security arrangement that includes Israel that will make the entire region safer. 

And I know that many in the region are absolutely committed to recognizing Israel in the way that Israel wants to be recognized and to move forward to send embassies, to open relations, to begin to make the region a financial hub and an agricultural and technology hub for the world.  And they are waiting to help realize the Arab Peace Initiative’s vision of a true peace between Israel and the Arab world and greater security for all.  And we all know from years of discussion and effort this is not – this is not – an impossible dream.  It’s achievable, but it demands that we never lose hope and we all draw strength from those who have sacrificed so much for peace. 

Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered 20 years ago last month, is the example of that.  Prime Minister Rabin dared to take risks.  He dared to take bold initiatives to end the conflict despite terrorism and violence, because he knew the answers to some of those questions I posed, because he knew the alternative, because he believed it was essential for the future security and prosperity of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and because he understood beyond all the complicating factors that influenced the events in the region that this is a struggle that transcends any distinction of national or religious identity, a struggle between people who are intent on opening wounds versus those who want to close them.  Rabin is gone, but his legacy endures as a challenge and as an inspiration to all of us.  And in his memory I ask everybody here to try to find a way to recommit to use our words and our actions to advance the cause of peace.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  It’s wonderful to have you here again, and that was a really great speech.  And I just want to say on behalf of everybody here how much we appreciate everything that you do – your untiring efforts in every regard, not just on the Israeli-Palestinian issue but on Syria and Libya and Yemen and climate change and so on.  You’re an inspiration and we just hope that your energy never flags.

In that regard, I got a sense --

SECRETARY KERRY:  I used to ask him all the questions.  (Laugher.)  Role reversal here. 

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  No, your staff said I was the only one that could ask you questions because I think they were worried about your answers.  (Laughter.) 

But in that regard, there was a certain sense I felt in what you had to say of a frustration and that the underlying message – correct me if I’m wrong – is basically it’s up to them now, it’s up to Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel; that in a sense you’ve done what you can and they’re going to have to take the steps.  Is that the message you’re sending here?

SECRETARY KERRY:  Not completely.  No, not entirely.  Is there some frustration?  Sure there is, because I believe it’s doable.  I mean, you were there working with us for two years.  We made great progress.  And Tzipi Livni knows that we really advanced the ball in many different ways.  We were very close on certain things.  And then things got in the way of that.  I don’t want to go backwards and talk about that, but I think that – I believe we do still have – I don’t think it’s just exclusively up to them, but it is mostly up to them. 

We can help shape.  We can support.  We can provide a foundation which will give them confidence that if they do X, Y, or Z we will be there, others will be there, and the following things will happen as a result of the choices that they make.  That’s very important.  And I think the United States always plays a very critical role in providing that kind of assurance, and we are a, I think, unparalleled convener on the planet.  We have an ability through many years of relationships, through alliances, through our economic strength, through our values, to be able to bring people to the table to help in these matters. 

But fundamentally – I say this very respectfully and there are a couple cabinet members here and folks outside the cabinet on the other side of the fence – the choices are clear.  If Abu Mazen gets weaker, I believe that’s a danger for Israel.  How is Israel advantaged to have chaos in the West Bank or to have another war with Gaza?  Gaza is ready to – it’s very, very tense, and it’s very important for us to take steps with respect to Gaza and the West Bank together.  Now, I think the prime minister has some good ideas about Gaza.  There’s some things that I think he is prepared to try to do there.  But obviously, the violence has made the climate very difficult.  When politicians are screaming at you from one side or the other that you’re not doing enough, and this and that, it closes the political space.  But nevertheless, you have to do what is in the best interests of the country and its security.  And I believe strengthening Abu Mazen is now and has been for years – and it hasn’t happened sufficiently for years – is critical, because if you don’t strength the one person who is most committed to nonviolence you send an incredibly negative message to all the rest of the people who are frustrated.  And they’ll finally say, “Well, we can’t do it that way.  He tried it.  They tried it for 30 years.  We got Oslo.  It was signed.  Wye was signed.  Madrid – all these things were done and signed, but nothing happened.” 

Folks, if that’s – you can’t do that.  You have to give life to these instruments or want to find ways to give life to them in order to build that different set of possibilities.  But right now, you’ve got a lot of young people growing up in the West Bank who don’t have jobs, who aren’t – they don’t see a future.  And the question is: What choices are they going to make?  I think Israel has a vital national security interest in wanting to do more, and I believe – I say this nicely, but I believe there are people within the security establishment of Israel who believe just what I said and who would like to see more done to strengthen the Palestinians. 

So it’s not exclusively up to them, but it’s predominantly up to them, and there’s got to be a greater indication of the things that both – both – are willing to do to move down this road.

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  Can you – without violating any diplomatic protocols or so on, but can you give us a sense of what those things should be? 

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, an example.  Oslo called for – Oslo divided the West Bank into three sectors, A, B, C.  A is a sector which has exclusive security and administrative rights to the Palestinians; B is a split, security to Israel, administrative to Palestinians; and C has both security and administrative in the hands of Israelis.  C is the predominance, the largest amount of the West Bank, 60 percent, as I just said.  And so A, regrettably, has seen multiple incursions of security forces from Israel notwithstanding that it’s supposed to be exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Palestinians.  And the reason for that – and I’m sympathetic to some of it – is that Israel asserts that they don’t do it or they’re not getting it done or they haven’t done things to protect Israel and so forth.  And Israel gets wind of some nefarious activities, and so Israel is going to resort to self-help.  And I’m sympathetic to that, yes.

But there should be a greater effort cooperatively with everybody, including us by the way.  We play a role.  We have a person who’s involved, a military representative to the West Bank who evaluates, and we work with some of the training.  The Jordanians do it.  We need to do more to guarantee they are getting the job done and work with them and uphold the agreement.  But more importantly, what we need to do now and the reason we need to do this – we went – when I first went over there three years ago and we started this process, we put in a whole bunch of economic measures – opening the Allenby Bridge for a period of time, increasing the amount of water that flowed, increasing the number of permits for work, lowering the age for this or that.  I mean, we did a lot of things.  Some of them were fully implemented.  Many were not fully implemented.  But those are the things we agreed on.

The problem is now we’re three years down the road with a disappointing process in the intervening time that reduces trust and hope, and so just coming in with the same kinds of measures will not get it done again.  So what I’m trying to persuade people is you have to go a little further to indicate to the Palestinians a political horizon, something that begins to say to them, “Yes, you can have a state.  There is a way to get there.  Here’s what you have to do.”  And begin to open up some opportunities in the Area C for them to build, to have some agriculture, do some business, and begin to strengthen themselves. 

That would begin to send a very different message.  And it doesn’t mean you have a big negotiation.  It’s not opening up a whole new set of promises for some outcome you can’t produce.  But it’s real and tangible in terms of the transition to Oslo and to rights.  And as I said earlier, it does not have any negative impact on Israel’s security because in Area C you would still have the legal right to Israel for full security; it only affects their right to build some housing, not to have their houses demolished, and to begin to have some hope.  That’s one of the kinds of steps we’re looking forward to.

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  And it sends a signal that --

SECRETARY KERRY:  It sends the --

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  -- all the C Area is not going to be in Israel’s hands forever. 

SECRETARY KERRY:  That’s absolutely correct.  And that’s very important, my friends, because right now, because of the municipality laws, and because of the settlements that are there, there is a significant reduction in the availability.  There is a lot of Area C that’s actually been, as I said, taken under state control and therefore not available to Palestinians, which raises their questions about whether it’s ever going to come back to them or not, and where Israel is really going with this.

So both sides have legitimate questions of the other.  But you’ve got to sit down – the other day I was in Cyprus, where we’re working very hard to try to break a frozen conflict.  And I had dinner with Mr. Akinci, who is the leader of the Turk Cypriots, and with President Anastasiades, who is the leader of the Greek Cypriots.  And we have now built the support of both the Turkish Government and the Greek Government, very much supporting the movement forward.  And they’re talking to each other.  We had dinner together, and they sat there and had a discussion about how they could provide for each other’s security, or how they might resolve.  That doesn’t happen in this conflict of 30 – whatever, 1948.  I mean it just doesn’t happen.

So we have to change the paradigm.  And rather than keep blaming each other, we’ve got to start saying, “You know what?  We got to build.”  I just talked to you about builders.  We need to build.  And that’s what we think these policies could begin to do.

AMBASSADOR INDYK:  What would you want to see Abu Mazen do?

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, Abu Mazen needs to – he needs to change the rhetoric, above all.  He made some very incendiary comments, which I called him on.  I was very direct with him about the al-Aqsa Mosque.  And there was some very inciteful comments made. 

I think one of the problems is Abu Mazen now doesn’t control some of the people.  He doesn’t control an Arab Israeli who runs around with a pair of scissors or grabs a knife.  In fact, nobody, to some degree, controls that now.  That’s social media-driven, and it’s a reflection of some of the challenge we face in fighting Daesh, and what is happening in terms of the radicalization of unemployed, youthful populations that have no sense of future.

So the issue here is: Can the Palestinians work to deal with a transition in their own governance which has to improve?  There are levels of some corruption and challenges within the PA that have to be taken on.  There are, in addition, textbooks, education, maps, I mean, things like – there are a lot of things that could begin to change that would reflect to Israel that, in fact, the Palestinians are working sincerely.

But if you’re not sitting down, if all you’re doing is hurling invective at each other on a daily basis, there is no prayer of beginning that kind of conversation.  And that’s the problem today.  There is – other than the security exchanges, which Bogie is responsible for, ultimately, but Shin Bet and Mossad – there is good cooperation there.  They’re working still despite everything else.  If that could be translated to another level, you could begin to break down some of these barriers.