January 03, 2017 - Kerry’s Israel-Palestine speech; two questions without answers


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Secretary of State Kerry's speech explaining the US decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that condemned the settlements; Netanyahu’s angry reaction; an assessment of the part Netanyahu chose to ignore: Kerry’s six principles for a two-state solution; President Trump’s possible approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue; and substantive corruption charges and a meaningful police investigation against Netanyahu.


Q. Last Wednesday December 28, Secretary of State Kerry gave a long speech explaining the US decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that condemned the settlements. How will it be remembered?

A. In the first two-thirds of his talk Kerry presented a careful, detailed and balanced explanation of the role the settlements play in reducing the feasibility of a two-state solution. He touched on every relevant issue and rebuffed every possible objection. This was a brilliant analysis--more comprehensive and compelling than anything I have read or heard and anchored in hard facts, including those reported regularly by Peace Now. I believe it will find a place in the annals of Israeli-Palestinian relations, wherever they may lead.


Q. How do you assess PM Netanyahu’s angry reaction, at prime time right after Kerry spoke?

A. Netanyahu essentially responded to the first two-thirds, Kerry’s treatment of the settlements. He did not really engage Kerry’s arguments regarding the danger posed by the settlements, preferring instead to appeal to the lowest level of public sentiment. Here is how Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summarized Netanyahu’s reaction: “Between the two speeches there was no meeting point. Kerry talked about the settlements in the heart of the Palestinian population; Netanyahu talked about the Western Wall. Kerry talked about Israel’s descent toward a bi-national state and a ‘separate but equal’ regime, broadly hinting at apartheid; Netanyahu spoke (twice) about how he personally is a victim of terrorism.”

Netanyahu, when caught out regarding the direction his coalition policies are leading, takes shelter in pseudo-patriotism and jingoistic nationalism, which is what his coalition and its constituents want to hear.


Q. What’s your assessment of the part Netanyahu chose to ignore: Kerry’s six principles for a two-state solution as laid out in the last third of his speech?

A. In the last third, Kerry presented a two-state-solution policy prescription that broke no new ground. Worse, it appeared to indicate that the same State Department policy planners who so tellingly recognize the dangerous dynamic of the settlements have learned nothing from past US failures to bring about an end of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Those failures include Kerry’s in 2013-14.

Kerry deserves our admiration and appreciation for his tenacity in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace with the same energy and intellect he applied to the more successful Iran-nuclear agreement. To be sure, there is nothing “wrong” with Kerry’s ideas for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this very formula has failed too many times, including by Kerry’s own hand in 2013-14. Then too, some of the six principles are framed in such generalities that they fail to contribute toward advancing agreed solutions of any sort.

Here are some examples (quotes are from Kerry’s Dec. 28 speech):

“Principle two: Fulfill the vision of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab, with mutual recognition and full equal rights for all their respective citizens.” In rejecting Kerry’s six principles, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas stated explicitly that the Palestinians cannot recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Like it or not, this is a fundamental tenet of the Palestinian position that emerges directly from the Palestinian narrative according to which the Jews are not a people with national roots in the disputed Land of Israel.

Kerry’s first mistake in 2013 was to place Jewish state recognition front and center in his demands on Abbas, positioning an existential narrative issue on a par with far more negotiable issues like that embodied in Kerry’s pragmatic “Principle number one: Provide for secure and recognized international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine, negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed equivalent swaps.” The record shows that the parties have in the past made substantial progress regarding borders, and zero progress regarding recognition of a Jewish state.

“Principle number three: Provide for a just, agreed, fair, and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, with international assistance, that includes compensation, options and assistance in finding permanent homes, acknowledgment of suffering, and other measures necessary for a comprehensive resolution consistent with two states for two peoples.” Like principle two, and leaving aside the fact that Kerry ignores the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, this is a good formulation for Israel. But unlike principle two, this is a formulation the Palestinians could eventually come around to. The implication of “consistent with two states for two peoples” is that few if any refugees would be resettled in Israel. Previous negotiations have generated a high degree of agreement in this regard, including Israeli participation in compensation and an international role in resettlement.

But Kerry’s solution ignores the other half of the Palestinians’ demand regarding refugees: that Israel accept, at least in principle, the “right of return” of all five million or so 1948 refugees and their descendants. That demand, like the Palestinian position on recognition of a Jewish state, goes to the heart of the Palestinian narrative of displacement. Like the Jewish state issue, it is basically not negotiable because it is not something that can be compromised on. For Israel to yield on this demand would be to acknowledge that the Jewish state was “born in sin”, hence in Palestinian eyes illegitimate. Kerry’s solution is apparently to simply ignore the right of return demand in formulating the principles for an end of conflict.

Incidentally, Kerry’s suggestion that Israel “acknowledge [Palestinian refugee] suffering” does not satisfy the Palestinians on the right of return issue. Ehud Barak offered precisely such an acknowledgement in a Knesset speech in 2000 (based on wording I drafted together with a Palestinian colleague).

“Principle four: Provide an agreed resolution for Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of the two states, and protect and assure freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.” The idea of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem has been discussed positively in virtually all final status negotiations. On the other hand, the Temple Mount status quo--indeed the status quo of the entire Holy Basin, including the Old City, Silwan and the Mount of Olives--is one of the biggest bones of contention between Israelis on the one hand and Palestinians and the entire Arab world on the other. A solution that simply freezes the status quo is not likely to succeed. This is another of those non-negotiable narrative issues for the Palestinians, whose leaders consistently argue that “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount,” meaning that Jews have no rights there at all because they have no legitimate history in the Holy Basin. Once again, the Palestinians are arguing that Israel was born in sin. Once again, Israel cannot accept this narrative as part of an end of conflict package.

In the past we encountered President Bill Clinton’s solution of giving Muslims the surface of the Temple Mount with its two mosques, and Jews the part underneath it (where the ruins of the Second Temple lie) as an underground virtual reality; King Hussein’s solution of making God the sovereign over the Mount; and Ehud Olmert’s detailed proposal for a five-nation international consortium to manage the holy places. All were rejected or ignored by the Palestinians. Now we have Kerry’s status quo proposal. The upshot of all these ideas, like Kerry’s proposals for recognizing a Jewish state and ignoring the right of return, brings us to:

“Principle six: End the conflict and all outstanding claims.” This cannot be done by mixing apples and oranges--mixing core narrative issues like Jewish state, the right of return and the Temple Mount with issues whose negotiability has been proven, like borders, security, refugee resettlement and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Kerry’s team never recognized this dichotomy in 2013-14 and apparently does not recognize it now.

Unlike Kerry’s analysis of the dangers posed by the settlements, it is doubtful whether his six principles will find a prominent place in the annals of the conflict. It would have made far more sense for the Obama peace team to separate the two sets of issues and, as its legacy and parting shot, to propose a two-state solution but not an end of conflict solution. Under present and foreseeable circumstances, the creation of a Palestinian state through agreement with Israel--borders, security, a capital--might be feasible. Ending the conflict--resolving the Temple Mount, right of return and Jewish state issues--is not. A two-state solution would go a long way toward stabilizing Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab relations even if for the time being the two sides cannot formally end their conflict and lay to rest all the core narrative disagreements that separate them.

In his response to Kerry, Netanyahu ignored the secretary of state’s six principles for an end-of-conflict solution. By so doing Netanyahu in effect signaled that in the Trump era he expects even the two-state solution to be a non-issue. Early in President Obama’s first term, in June 2009, Netanyahu rhetorically accepted the two-state solution in the Bar Ilan speech. At the time he apparently feared Obama. He does not seem to fear Trump. But he might be smart to do so.


Q. Why? Moving on from the Obama-Kerry era to the Trump era, what is your prediction regarding President Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

A. I have no answer. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think Trump knows. I expect him to tweet a sound-bite policy pronouncement one day and to contradict it the next. It is impossible to predict how he will respond to a crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere any more than in the Iranian sphere or concerning the complex dynamic in the Levant currently involving Syria, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Kurds.

Trump appears to have no moral commitments and no principled attitudes toward anything. Certainly when it comes to Israel, Trump has few if any political debts to pay off. He can appoint a pro-settlements ambassador to Israel (paying off a personal debt?), a pro-Russian secretary of state, and a secretary of defense who warns Israel of an apartheid future. All bets are off.


Q. Finally, it looks like PM Netanyahu is now truly facing substantive corruption charges and a meaningful police investigation.

A. Netanyahu’s response to each and every corruption charge over the years thus far has been, “They’ll find nothing because there is nothing there.” Until now, all charges have been dropped. Against this backdrop, any objective observer has to conclude that the prime minister knows how to manage his extensive crony capitalist contacts and get away with it. All bets are off here too.