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What’s behind John Kerry’s speech?

December 29, 2016 at 2:34 pm

A eulogy for the two-state solution? Maybe – but Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech Wednesday sounded suspiciously like yet another desperate attempt to sustain the so-called ‘peace process’.

It is only possible to understand the Security Council resolution and Kerry’s speech, how to view them – their weaknesses, and the opportunities they represent – by beginning with a reality check about the two-decade old, US and internationally-led peace process.

The peace process imposed a false symmetry on occupier and occupied, transforming coloniser and colonised into ‘two parties’ with mutual obligations and responsibilities.

The peace process has also served to further immunise Israel from accountability for systematic and serial human rights abuse and international law violations. Attempts to secure justice for the victims of war crimes, for example, have been sacrificed in order to ‘protect’ the negotiations process.

And finally, the goal of the peace process, which became increasingly explicit, is to preserve Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Palestinian rights are subordinated to Israel’s (ethnocratic) ‘character’, and Palestinian sovereignty (and self-defence) is subordinated to Israel’s ‘security’ needs.

Kerry: Status quo in Israel leading to continued occupation

But the peace process came unstuck, an unravelling driven by an Israeli political leadership wedded to the colonisation of the West Bank and a total lack of political will from US and European states to impose a genuine cost on a rejectionist, pro-settlement Israeli government.

There was nothing original about Kerry’s claim on Wednesday that if Israel holds on to the West Bank forever, it will “either be Jewish or democratic” but it “cannot be both.” Versions of this warning have been issued for years now by Western diplomats, and even some Israeli politicians.

Kerry himself, at the Saban Forum in December 2015, asked rhetorically: “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?”

Two important points about this ‘warning’. First, Israel has been ruling millions of non-citizen Palestinians with a military regime for almost precisely 50 years. So, on that basis alone, the permanently-temporary occupation already calls into question Israel’s ‘democratic’ credentials.

But second, the very framework is a concession to settler colonial racism, where the mere presence of Palestinians constitutes a threat. What, for example, are the implications for Israel’s Palestinian citizens of a state ideology where ‘too many’ non-Jews is a matter of existential peril?

There are three main factors behind the UN Security Council resolution and Kerry’s speech (in other words, ‘Why now?’). Key impetus comes from a new bill advancing through the Knesset that would retroactively ‘legalise’ dozens of unauthorised settlement ‘outposts’ across the West Bank.

In parallel to this development is the imminent arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, bringing with him a team of advisers on the Middle East that includes explicit opponents of Palestinian statehood and enthusiastic supporters of Israeli colonisation.

And, in addition, this was an expression of frustration by an Obama administration that would have loved to have had two terms of an Israeli premier like Tzipi Livni or Isaac Herzog – cannier strategists when it comes to playing ball with the ‘peace process’ – but instead got eight years of Bibi.

As Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, wrote in The Nation: “This was an attempt to get out ahead of the blame game in the history books. Kerry made clear that if the Israelis want to kill peace with settlements, that is their choice.”

But what about the positive bits? Sure, Kerry’s speech was a breath of fresh air when compared to the outright fabrications or predictable talking points of Israeli officials and their friends and allies. But that’s not really setting the bar very high.

Kerry boasted of Barack Obama’s record in supporting Israel, claiming that “no American Administration has done more for Israel’s security.” He added: “In the midst of our own financial crisis and budget deficits, we repeatedly increased funding to support Israel.”

The US diplomat even proudly noted Obama’s support for Israel during widely-condemned, brutal assaults on the Gaza Strip (or, in Kerry’s words, “actions…that sparked great controversy”).

WATCH: In parting shot at Israel, Kerry warns Middle East peace in jeopardy

Kerry’s principles for a peace deal are, in the words of Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, “superbly Zionist”: ‘land swaps’ to take into account major illegal settlements, Palestinian refugees denied from returning home so as not to threaten Israel’s (violently-created) Jewish majority.

It’s true that Kerry acknowledged some uncomfortable truths about Israel’s discriminatory regime in the occupied West Bank: “almost no private Palestinian building is approved in Area C at all”, he said, noting how “only one permit was issued by Israel in all of 2014 and 2015.”

And yes, Kerry also rebutted some common arguments regarding settlement construction, noting how “what constitutes a [settlement] bloc is being made unilaterally by the Israeli government, without consultation, without the consent of the Palestinians.”

But this is a reminder that Kerry and diplomats like him are not ignorant of the facts – they have just chosen to afford Israel impunity. In addition, it is clear that Kerry knows similarly disturbing facts pertaining to situations he is proud of defending – e.g. Israel’s bombardments of Gaza.

Having said all the above, it is important not to dismiss the politics – and impact – of the US admonishing, bluntly and publicly, Netanyahu’s government, especially following hard on the heels of a UN Security Council resolution reaffirming Israel’s “flagrant” violations of international law.

Such dynamics will certainly make life much harder for Israel’s advocacy groups – especially those still hoarsely making the ‘progressive case’ for a settler colonial state. The ludicrous reactions of Netanyahu and his ministers have highlighted their disdain for, and fear of, international law.

The UN resolution and Kerry’s speech (and what it represents) will play into and act as a catalyst for pre-existing processes – such as Israel’s transformation into a partisan issue in US politics, and the growth of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

The case for boycotts and sanctions will only be easier to make in light of a guaranteed continuation of Israeli settlement growth and apartheid policies, post-UN resolution. It should become even clearer to human rights groups and international governments that genuine pressure is required.

Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev called Kerry’s speech “a rite of transition from one era to the next.” The question for the Palestinian leadership is whether they can adapt accordingly, and leverage the new developments in aid of self-determination and the rights of all the Palestinian people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.