I am not impressed by Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed but energetic attempt to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not that I don’t think his heart is in the right place. I know from conversations with him when he was in the Senate that he totally “gets” what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about.
Like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, with whom I also discussed the issue on multiple occasions, he understands that the obstacle to peace is the Israeli occupation. In fact, I’d say that the views of these three top United States government officials are nearly identical to those of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Like him, they want negotiations with the goal of ending the occupation while guaranteeing the security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
But it doesn’t matter what the three of them believe is best for all concerned (not least the United States) because domestic politics prevents them from publicly diverging from the policies of the Israeli government. That was the lesson of the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense.
Hagel, unlike Biden and Kerry, had not confined his views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to private meetings. He said publicly that the United States had to start behaving like an honest broker in the Middle East (rather than, as former U.S. negotiator, Aaron Miller, put it, “Israel’s lawyer”) but was constrained by the fact that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress.
Those remarks would have killed his nomination but for the fact that he fully recanted them. Sen. Chuck Schumer, representing the forces of the status quo, spent 90 minutes with Hagel to educate him on Israel on Iran and to accept his convenient repentance.
Schumer followed up with a press conference in which he announced that he would now support Hagel who had answered his questions “very well.” He said that Hagel “almost had tears in his eyes when he understood. So I believe he will be good.” (Apparently tears are essential in these sessions. Obama’s nominee for United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, had “tears streaming down her cheeks” when she recanted her previous positions on Israel, not to Schumer but to an Orthodox rabbi who described the scene.) Some 40 leaders of the Jewish community were invited to watch Power recant.
Not surprisingly, Hagel has not said a word remotely critical of the Netanyahu government since assuming the Pentagon post. Nor is Power likely to deviate from the position of her predecessor Susan Rice who viewed defending Israel against all criticism as part of her job description (and who has moved on to National Security Adviser with the strong support of the lobby).
Biden has shown the way. Despite his private misgivings, he has famously said, and more than once, that there must be “no daylight, no daylight” between U.S. and Israeli policies. And, there essentially hasn’t been since 2009 when President Obama backed down in his demand for a settlement freeze following intense lobby pressure.
And that means that the United States has forfeited all credibility as a mediator in this conflict. We have chosen sides. We cannot pretend to be an umpire.
At this point, all Kerry accomplishes with his “re-engagement” is to provide the illusion that there is a peace process which, like everything else the Obama administration does in the region, only benefits Netanyahu. The Palestinians don’t buy it anyway. It doesn’t even raise false hope. It raises none.
But for Netanyahu the U.S. role provides cover. It demonstrates to the Israeli people that no matter what he does, no matter how many new settlers he brings to the West Bank or Palestinian neighborhoods he seizes, the United States still comes to him, bowing, offering respect and gently asking favors which Netanyahu ignores without consequence.
Although the Israeli peace camp keeps saying that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land isolates Israel, visits from top U.S. officials show it isn’t so. It demonstrates the opposite. And, in so doing, weakens the anti-occupation forces even more. Their dire predictions are repeatedly shown not to be true; Israel can have its cake and eat it too.
It’s time to end the charade and that means pulling the plug on the peace process. Doing so will have no effect on the Palestinians who already know that they are on their own. But it will send a clear message to the Israeli people that no one is going to bail them out of problems their government has created for them.
The irony, of course, is that if the United States wanted to resolve the conflict, rather than to pretend to, it can. All it would take is putting conditions on our massive aid foreign aid package, reducing it in stages as settlers continue to grab up Palestinian land and plant themselves on it. Even small cuts would get Netanyahu’s attention more than these endless faux-negotiating sessions that serve only to reassure Israel that it won’t pay a price for occupation.
But that won’t happen; it won’t even be contemplated. (On the contrary, at AIPAC’s insistence, we keep raising aid levels.) And that is why Netanyahu himself is infinitely more worried about the gains being made by the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) than he is about Kerry’s tiny complaints. BDS actually makes Israel pay a price for the occupation by, in Tom Friedman’s words, “creating a powerful surge of international opinion, particularly in Europe and on college campuses, that Israel is a pariah state because of its West Bank occupation.”
I have never supported BDS (except as it relates directly to the occupation like the boycott of goods made in the settlements or divestment from companies that benefit from it) but reality is intruding. Nothing else seems to frighten Netanyahu and it’s hard not to recall, with Nelson Mandela on everyone’s mind, that it was the sanctions movement that ended apartheid. I just hope it won’t be necessary to use such a blunt tool to end the occupation. But it increasingly appears that it will be.